Reflecting on Shape and Sound
Before I even start, I want to say that I do not have all of the answers. If I did, I would not need to write this. There may be factors I am unaware of, and resources I should have tapped into. Through the efforts to make Shape and Sound work, we were met with some incredibly optimistic energies and individuals. I also do not look at the fact that Shape and Sound as an educational program did not work out as a failure. It was a wonderful experiment that allowed me to work with great educators and students. I learned a lot from it and I wanted to take some time to reflect on it.
Shape and Sound Arts (Academy) was a creative arts program that focused on the creative habits and individual strengths of its students. With a two-fold focus on visual and musical arts, the students participated in an individualized curriculum that provided them with agency in how they learned. In addition, students were given regular opportunities to collaborate with other students, learn about contemporary artists, and get individualized instruction from two expert teachers in the field. Shape and Sound was imagined by Patrick Booth and Ben Pawlowski (with definite assistance from our life partners as we were constantly thinking out loud). The program existed as a virtual program during the 2020/21 school year and offered an in-person 3-week program in the summer of 2021. The program went into some form of hibernation in the fall of 2021, and through the words below, I am going to explore what it all was.
I think it is important to first explore what brought it into existence in the first place. Mostly it formed itself over a series of backyard conversations amongst friends during the summer and fall of 2020, but what fueled those conversations was a whole event unto itself that could probably spawn its own long dissection of events, but I will try to sum it up quickly here.
For the 2019/20 school year, I was the Art Teacher at Bothwell Middle School. The position had been part-time for years, but I had high hopes of convincing them that they should hire me full-time. In the long run, the program was canceled altogether, and the only reason that was ever given to me was that the school needed to move money around to prepare for Covid measures that needed to be taken. I found out that the program was canceled through reading meeting minutes of a summer faculty meeting. Nobody called me to talk to me about it (even up to today). Art was simply canceled as I was still receiving emails from parents asking me if their child got into Art that year. Now, I don’t want to dwell on this aspect of the whole narrative I am trying to explore here, so I will try to summarize my feelings - It was incredibly hurtful to not be able to teach at Bothwell that year, but to try to find any kind of silver lining, during that year of change I was able to explore a lot of different ideas about the type of artist and teacher I could be. But, it certainly feels criminal to take Art from kids when they definitely needed it the most to sort their feelings during a difficult year, that combined with how I was treated in the whole matter, it stings deeply.
Let’s get back to Shape and Sound. Now that Art was canceled at Bothwell, the middle school aged students of Marquette for the most part, had no access to a visual Art program. I do believe Father Marquette, a private Catholic school in town, had occasional art classes for students, and Hot Plate, a ceramics business in town, offered some take home art kits, but these were not things that most of the over 700+ middle school aged students in town had access to. This bothered me, and combined with a healthy amount of ranting amongst friends, we started to wonder if we could offer something better. Before we knew it, we started to build a curriculum, we came up with a name, I built a website, and we started to figure out the business end of it.
I could sum up the whole challenge of Shape and Sound as two driven teachers that have a lot of passion and experience for teaching, but have very little background or acumen for business. That would be accurate, but it would not be very constructive. I think it might be more helpful to break things down a bit more. What elements did we have control over? In what ways did we feel that it was close to working out? What could have been different for us that would have allowed Shape and Sound or any program like it, to flourish?
Patrick and I are determined educators and artists who have enough in common to bounce our ideas off of each other, and because I have such a visual arts focus and he has such a musical arts focus, we have a lot to learn from each other. He is one of my favorite people to talk about Art stuff with, and he has helped me understand my own work from a more musical or sonic perspective. One major challenge we had right off the bat, was the fact that there was no possible way we could rely on Shape and Sound to make a liveable income. It was obvious from the get go that it would take time for our idea to catch on to the point where we could hope to have enough students to sustain the program. This meant Patrick and I still needed to do other work. Patrick did a mix of private lessons, teaching classes at Michigan Tech (which was about an hour away), and making darn good coffee at The Crib, on top of working with me on Shape and Sound. I taught part-time for an online program called Edgenuity, I picked up some work teaching through Michigan Arts Access as well as an artist in residency program in Ishpeming through Liberty Children’s Art Project, all on top of trying to make Shape and Sound work. Was this ideal? Certainly not, but what else could we do? Neither of us were magically wealthy, and we still had families to care for and bills to pay.
It feels almost like a cop-out to say we just didn’t have enough money to get this thing going, but I think it was more complicated than that. COVID was happening, so to ask even the most motivated art students to do something “extra” after their days of virtual learning, was asking a lot. Everyone’s priorities were distorted, so to ask or even expect the community to make space in their hearts, schedules, (and wallets) to support a burgeoning Art program half run by someone new to town, was perhaps foolishly optimistic.
Beyond the financial hurdles, there is also only so much time in the day. For months of the program, I was working other jobs while also trying to organize classes, promote those classes through social media and public outreach, and then also teach those classes. It just got to be too much over time. I just could not keep up that pace of work and still take care of myself.
This is also somewhat exacerbated by the lack of decent housing options, expensive cost of rent in Marquette, and the overall lack of pay offered to any teachers that are working in the established schools in the area. Subbing could have been a decent way to supplement income. It would have allowed me to still be teaching in the community and even make connections with students that might love a program like Shape and Sound, but substitutes in the area make around $80 per day (before taxes). This is a job that you need at least a bachelor’s degree for and you would make barely above minimum wage for inconsistent work. This means that the substitutes in the Marquette area are either extremely under qualified, or they are being extremely taken advantage of, and I would bet that it is almost entirely the latter. Also, I once interviewed for a full-time teaching job in a nearby town, with pay being around $36,000 a year. I did not get this job, and I hold no hard feelings about it, because for that pay I could not have possibly taken it. This was $36,000 to START an art program from scratch for grades 6-12 for less money that it would cost to rent a small apartment and pay for the smallest most economical car that could get you to and from work in an often hazardous climate. I wish that school and the teacher who got the job well, but I am not sure how the teacher is affording to live in the area. Maybe they offered that person more money than had been mentioned in my interview, but I doubt it. I can really only imagine that the only way new teachers can afford to exist in the greater Marquette area is with an extreme dependency on a spouse or partner that makes more money, or a family wealthy enough to assist them. I also know that this is a problem that many people are aware of, but I am not seeing anyone doing anything about it. What hope did I ever have to get enough funding for a program like Shape and Sound, when the powers that be have already valued teachers at such a low, insulting level?
I want to start to close this out with an effort to be more positive. The students that we got to work with through Shape and Sound were phenomenal. I say that with no exaggeration. Their openness to trying something like Shape and Sound when the world was in such an uncertain state, and their ability to come to our sessions with creative optimism, might have been the most positive thing I experienced during any part of the pandemic. I have often been comforted by the thought of today’s youth one day being in charge of the world, and this group was full of that kind of energy. I would put any one of those kids into a place of power tomorrow if I could, as long as they still would get time to make some Art. I only wish we would have had the time and funds to stay afloat long enough to build up a bigger audience of students whose tuition would have made Shape and Sound a little closer to sustainable.
Also, I do see people in Marquette that are capable of doing great things for the Arts of the area. I think Marquette Fringe should get every penny of funding that they ask for because that group is filled with hard-working, big-hearted, community-minded individuals who would bend over backward to make the area a better place. I think the only thing that keeps them from doing more is the fact that a lot of people in the town want them to provide things for free. And as willing as they often are to do that, they are all being stretched too thin to do so over and over again. The expectation for “free” art experiences is a hurdle in Marquette. When I first moved to Marquette three years ago, a lot of people told me it was a very arts oriented town, and I do feel that I have been allowed to do some interesting things - a mural on the bike path near lower harbor, a temporary maze mural on the windows of Campfire Coworks, and a variety of experimental projects for 2021’s Art Week. Yet, the murals and programming are all things I did for free with the ever present blind hope of an artist to get some exposure so that maybe someday someone will pay me to do the things I am good at. I was paid an acceptable amount to create the Marquette Art Quest Activity Book, and Liberty Children’s Art Project has been incredible at providing me with some work, but neither project provided a regular and dependable paycheck. I was always left scrambling for the next “gig”. So, my experience is that sure, you can be artistic in this town, but it might help if you are independently wealthy, or if you simply don’t mind living in squalor. If you want things to change for the arts community in Marquette, fight for them to get more funding, or do what you can to support them yourself. Maybe someone with more business sense can come around and make an idea like Shape and Sound work. If that person comes around, and they need someone to bounce ideas off of, I am available.