Next time you stop by The Minneapolis Foundation’s office, look for a series of brightly colored weavings on the wall of our staff café. They’re gorgeous – and you’d never guess they were made by high school students.
The students, who visited our office this week, take art at Wellstone International High School, a public school composed entirely of recent immigrants. They’re all well into their teens, and yet some of them who grew up in refugee camps had never taken a single drawing lesson before they enrolled in the class. Wellstone’s art teacher, Linda Radius, is just one of the mentors who support these students as they put in the hard work to learn English, graduate, and go on to college and careers.
The Minneapolis Foundation joined Wellstone students on one step of that journey this fall. Through a Minneapolis Public Schools program called Co-Mission, which pairs art classes in the school district with local sponsors, the Foundation commissioned the weavings, and Wellstone art students designed and completed them as if they were professional artists.
The class chose bright colors to represent Minnesota’s seasons, including winter – a novelty for some students who came from Africa and had never seen snow. As 16-year-old Abubakar Sherif put it, “That’s the best part of Minnesota – the four seasons.”
The Foundation took part in Co-Mission thanks to a gift from Lowell Stortz, a former Trustee. “As a way to say thank you for his time as a board member, Lowell wanted to give the Foundation something that would benefit our staff,” said Colleen Byrne, our Business Services Manager. “When we heard about Co-Mission, we both agreed it would be the perfect way to brighten our office – especially since education and the arts are two of the Foundation’s focus areas.”
With the Foundation as a Co-Mission partner, Radius and the school district had the chance to hire a professional artist who introduced her students to weaving. Our contribution also covered the cost of looms that Wellstone can use for future art classes.
Weaving was a great fit for Radius’s class because her students all learned it together. You don’t need a strong background in drawing or painting to feel successful as a weaver, she pointed out.
To mentor Wellstone’s students, Co-Mission connected with Chiaki O’Brien, a local teaching artist who specializes in SAORI, a contemporary method of Japanese hand weaving. The beauty of SAORI is that there are no mistakes, and the individuality of each woven piece is celebrated, O’Brien said.
SAORI has played an important role in O’Brien’s life and work. When she moved to Minnesota from Japan in 2004, O’Brien was painfully shy about her beginner’s English, she said – but her desire to share her knowledge of weaving helped her overcome that barrier and connect with people. This fall, she had the pleasure of sharing the same experience with Wellstone’s students. “We are not creating fabric,” O’Brien said. “We are telling our story.”