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With pandemic, protests over racial injustice, GSA adapts instruction, conversations on artmaking

By Debra Murray | Arts Bureau Edge Reporter

Pleasure Ridge Park High School, Class of 2020

“I am Black.

I am Muslim.

I am not a terrorist.”

Those lines were from Valley High School rising senior Sona Ali’s slam poem when a Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts’ drama instructor asked students to write about “their story.” Ali wrote about the discrimination she faced for being Black and Muslim.

Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts Vocal Music Chairperson and the Choral Director Alexander T. Simpson (bottom, right) moderated a panel for Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts vocal music students that included University of Kentucky Opera Theatre alumni Denisha Ballew (top, left); Alexa Smith (top, right); and Karmesha Peake (middle, right) along with UK Professor and Director of Opera Everett McCorvey (bottom, right). Photos courtesy Kentucky Performing Arts.

The prompt inspired some students to write about simple things like their family life or growing up.

Dakota Perry, a drama student and rising senior attending Rowan County Senior High School, wrote: “They only cover Black Lives Matter when the glass shatters.”

Both were among 30 students in that class. Some of them wrote about the fear they live in under racial discrimination. The drama students, split into groups of three, read their slam poems — all in a virtual session.

GSA announced in early May it would be virtual, over a month after in-person classes had ended in Kentucky.

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This year’s GSA took place June 29 through July 17 — 14 weeks after the killing of Breonna Taylor by police in her Louisville apartment, and only four weeks after the George Floyd's death in the custody of Minneapolis police. Both ignited protests across the country. With that backdrop, GSA worked to spotlight racial injustice and Black artists.

As a virtual program, Kentucky Performing Arts, which runs GSA, restructured all activities. All 250 students started each day with an opening meeting with special guests before they broke off into smaller groups to focus on their art form. Rather than spending the day learning at the University of Kentucky’s campus, as originally planned, students adapted to learning from their homes. GSA also spotlighted artists of color in sessions. They discussed their experiences as well as ideas relating to Black Lives Matter and being Black or a person of color in the art world.

Artists Aaron Whitby and Martha Redbone. Kentucky-native and song-writer Redbone spoke to Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts students about her career, her motivation and her experiences with prejudice. Courtesy Kentucky Performing Arts.

One session included three University of Kentucky Opera Theatre graduates, Denisha Ballew, Karmesha Peake and Alexa Smith. Ballew and Peake spoke about their experiences performing earlier this year in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of “Porgy and Bess” with other alumni. Louisville native Alexa Smith, Manhattan School of Music’s chief of staff in the president’s office, has sung with numerous companies including New York City Opera.

Another session featured Kevin Olusola, the cellist from Owensboro and beatboxer with the a cappella group Pentatonix. These artists of color sometimes performed but they also discussed their experiences in art and the discrimination they faced.

During the first week, guest artist songwriter and vocalist Martha Redbone spoke to all students and performed a few songs with collaborator Aaron Whitby, displaying the blues, gospel, soul, Appalachian folk and Native American styles she blends. She talked about being a Native American and Black woman in the music industry.

“My calling was to be different and be a part of the community to tell a story,” said Redbone, who also composed music for the award-winning 2019 revival of the 1970s play by Ntozake Strange, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow is Enuf.” “In this climate of Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter, the violence we see is not the way forward.”

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Her talk made an impression.

“Martha made her art and activism one thing instead of separate,” said drama student and rising Breathitt County High School rising senior Breana Lovins. “I remember her talking about how she was Native American and Black as well as a woman in the music industry. She talked about how much oppression she went through. You could just feel her hurt. Everyone was sending so much love in the chat, but also everyone was rendered speechless.”

Experiences of discrimination also arose in student workshops, like the drama session that included Ali.

Poet Hannah Drake recited her work in a Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts session with Louisville Ballet dancer Brandon Ragland where both spoke to students about their collaborative projects and being Black artists. Courtesy Kentucky Performing Arts.

“Doing that assignment reminded me of being bullied once in my life and being called a terrorist,” said Ali. “I wanted people to know me being a Black girl and a Muslim doesn’t make me a threat to society.”

Ali’s words touched other drama GSA students, specifically Lovins.

“My heart broke,” Lovins said. “How could someone see this beautiful, sweet, and talented girl as a terrorist? I just couldn’t believe it.”

During their session, Drake recited heartbreaking her poem “Ain’t I a Mother,” with lines including, “My son was a good kid, but good black boys scream from the graves daily,” followed later by hope. “One day his skin won’t be his sentence.”

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In their session, the two talked about their artistic journey working together to create pieces using her words and his dancing, the prejudice they have experienced while working as artists, police brutality, and the importance of art during trying times like now with the pandemic and the protests against racial injustice.

“She was a beautiful soul and a powerful speaker,” Perry said. “It was very powerful watching their art forms combining. They covered the Black Lives Matter movement, and you could see how hurt they were, through her words and his dance motions.”

Olusola also talked about the importance of telling experiences through artwork and reflecting current events.

Actors Theatre of Louisville Artistic Director Robert Barry Fleming spoke to Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts’ theater students about theater and equity. Courtesy Kentucky Performing Arts.

“These stories are so important and need to be told. Think about your experience and let that experience be known,” said Olusola “We have to reflect the times in our art.”

From specific sessions like these to this summer’s program as a whole, students were exposed to discussions about the current movement and introduced to more artists of color.

“GSA has taken so many steps in the right direction to start conversations about how it feels to be a minority in art,” said Chance Ridgeway, a rising senior and drama student at Lexington’s Frederick Douglass High School. “I have been able to see and hear from different black artists that do incredible things in their individual art forms, which has inspired me in so many ways.”

Living under the effects of Covid-19 also prompted students to work in new ways while weaving ideas about the pandemic into their artwork. The visual art students’ final project was for each to create a portrait of a woman of color working in the healthcare industry during this pandemic.

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“So many of our healers on the front lines are people of color, who are often underappreciated,” said Susan Harrison, a GSA visual arts instructor.

The portraits, an idea of GSA visual art faculty, involved the students in a Denver-based nationwide project called “Women of Color on the Front Lines.” The project displays pictures of these typically underrepresented women working through the pandemic.

In many sessions, students of color were able to share their experiences of racism, and GSA provided white students an opportunity to listen and learn. Each session with guest artists provided time for GSA students to ask questions about the artists’ careers to how discrimination has affected them.

Artists Kremena Todorova (top left) and Kurt Gohde (top right) and images from their project “Lexington in the Time of Covid-19.” They spoke to Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts students about creating art during this pandemic. Courtesy Kentucky Performing Arts.

During the session with Actors Theatre of Louisville Artistic Director Robert Barry Fleming, Perry asked Fleming what he could read to educate himself on racial issues. Perry said living in Morehead, Kentucky, he felt distant from current events because of a lack of protests in his area. Fleming recommended three books. Perry and other students took note.

Fleming recommended “A Matter of Color” by A. Leon Higginbotham Jr, George C. Wright’s “Life Behind A Veil,” and “Owsley County, Kentucky, and the Perpetuation of Poverty” by John R. Burch Jr. Each is about different issues — including widespread oppression of Black people, racism in Louisville following the Civil War, and the large portion of Owsley County's population living below the poverty line.

“Being a white male in Kentucky, I’ve never faced racial discrimination, and in GSA we were able to hear black people’s experience. It was really eye-opening,” Perry said. “I can’t empathize, but I can sympathize, and I can learn what other people feel, especially with the Confederate flag and statues.”

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In the last days of the program, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear spoke about the importance of art helping understand how someone else feels — specifically when people see symbols of the Confederacy.

“We are seeing cries, demands for justice, and sometimes art has been the most effective way of helping people to see from someone else’s eyes,” Beshear said, “how walking into our state capital and seeing the president of the Confederacy might make someone feel.”

Beshear also spoke about the importance of creativity and artists, and how powerful art in helping to inform people, especially in a time when people are getting sick or facing racism.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear spoke to Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts on one o e of the final mornings of the three-week program. Courtesy Kentucky Performing Arts.

“I believe what is going to drive us moving forward in our economy is our creativity,” he said. “Each of you all are leaders and you don’t get enough credit for it. But it’s time we start paying attention. They see your willingness to do GSA virtually and hopefully your willingness to wear a mask.”

At a time where Covid-19 has limited many to stay home, GSA students were able to see how artists coped with the pandemic by continuing to create art. Lexington-based artists and Transylvania University professors Kurt Gohde and Kremena Todorova created the project “Lexington in the Time of Covid-19.” The project started in mid-March, just as many schools were starting to shut down and Kentucky moved closer to quarantine.

“We wanted to create something positive to show people that somehow we will survive this virus,” Todorova said. “The question was: How do you make an artwork that engages people when we are supposed to social distance? When we should not get closer to each other than six feet, our idea was to photograph people outside of their homes — on their front porch, and the back of the home — then ask them how they were handling the pandemic, and what was on their minds.”

Instructors see value in having GSA students meet artists using this time to continue creating work and create work that reflects current history.

“You still have to do your art in spite of everything, that is a tremendous lesson from 2020 that students wouldn’t get any other years,” said Harrison.


Debra Murray, a 2020 graduate of Pleasure Ridge Park High School entering her freshman year at Western Kentucky University as a journalism major this fall, already has a job with The College Heights Herald, the university newspaper. She also was an Arts Bureau Edge reporter covering Actors Theatre of Louisville's 2019 Humana Festival of New American Plays.



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