Student self-portraits go beyond skin tone

CH-UH elementary school student self-portraits are on view at the Lee Road Library.

This spring, elementary students across the CH-UH district had an opportunity to paint self-portraits under the guidance of professional artist Debbie Apple-Presser, in a project titled “Together We Rise.” The project, funded by local arts funding organization RoxArts, was designed to show how students, despite all that they have been through over the past two years, have come out even stronger.

The children couldn’t use any of the colors traditionally associated with skin tone; there was no brown, tan, black or white paint available to them. Instead, they used red, blue, green and purple to express their inner selves—their feelings and identities that go far beyond race or skin tone. 

“It was really an SEL project,” said RoxArts board member Andrea C. Turner, referring to the social-emotional learning that is common in district schools.

The project complemented the color-coded Zones of Regulation adopted by Boulevard Elementary School to help students regulate their emotions.

Apple-Presser, a mother of Heights alumni, used a pre-recorded video to lay out the project with every class in kindergarten, through grade five, in all seven of the district's elementary schools.

Students discussed with their teachers and classmates what emotions or characteristics different colors could represent, then moved to their art classes to create the actual portraits. 

“The portraits are so revealing,” said Apple-Presser. “They’re very telling about who each child is.” She said the colors chosen, and how they’re laid out across the children’s faces, reveal who they are and what they care about. “I can tell that this one is quiet and likes to read, while that one may go through three different moods every day,” Apple-Presser noted.

RoxArts is endeavoring to display the more than 2,000 portraits throughout the community, for the public to view.

The first installation was at Appletree Books in the Cedar Fairmount neighborhood, while the Lee Road Library is currently showing hundreds of portraits in the exhibition space near Dobama Theatre.

Next, empty storefronts on Coventry Road will soon be lined with portraits.

Turner reminds students and their families not to be disappointed if their portrait has yet to be displayed. The pictures are being chosen randomly, not based on artistic ability, and the project coordinators are working to secure enough public spaces to display them all.

RoxArts is also in the process of changing its name to more accurately reflect its work funding arts education and enrichment across the district.

“We want schools and teachers to know they’re eligible for equal amounts of funding,” said Turner, who expects a new name to be announced in the late summer or early fall. 

Krissy Dietrich Gallagher

Krissy Dietrich Gallagher is a freelance journalist under contract with the CH-UH City School District. She is proud to raise her two sons in this community. 

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Volume 15, Issue 7, Posted 10:05 AM, 07.01.2022