Philadelphia school uses art for fulfillment, profit

Kathleen Nguyen, 14, examines the colors in her painting of koi. "I paint when I'm bored, or mad, or happy.It helps me express my feelings," she said. "I hope it makes the person who buys it happy, too."
Kathleen Nguyen, 14, examines the colors in her painting of koi. "I paint when I'm bored, or mad, or happy.It helps me express my feelings," she said. "I hope it makes the person who buys it happy, too."
Posted: June 21, 2010

Twelve years ago, when Rochelle Cohen began teaching art at Woodrow Wilson Middle School in Northeast Philadelphia, she said, the hallways were "drabby."

"I remember thinking, 'Where's the kids' artworks?' " Cohen said.

Inspired to brighten the halls of the school, where more than half the students are economically disadvantaged, Cohen and fellow art teacher Janice Hill began tacking up students' watercolor and oil pastel paintings.

Before long, the pieces began to travel beyond the hallways.

"We began to notice teachers were asking if they could have the work to decorate their classrooms," Cohen said. "The problem was the kids weren't getting their pieces back and they weren't receiving a profit for their hard work."

Watching this exchange, Hill began to think that maybe the art could be worth something more than a pat on the back and a thank you. People might be willing to pay for it.

"And that is when the seed was planted," Hill said.

Now Wilson's hallways double as the showroom for the annual silent auction of student art, which ended this month with bids from school administrators, parents, and other community members.

What began as a way to encourage students to see art as a possible business venture blossomed into a seven-year tradition that brings the school and community together to acknowledge the students' hard work and talent.

The auctioned pieces begin at $5, Hill said. In previous years, revenue was split between the student and the school. This year, it went entirely to the artists.

A few weeks before the auction, eighth grader Vivian Ngo sat in the art room in front of a palette of red, blue, and green paint - the only colors the students are given, to prompt creative mixing - as she put the final touches on a grassy plain topped by a blue sky.

Landscapes, said the 14-year-old, are her specialty.

Last year, she sold two pieces at the auction. For both, the bidding started at $7. At the close, she made about $25 total, she said.

"My art teacher bought one," Ngo said. "It was really neat to see my work being bidded on."

Classmate Kathleen Nguyen, 14, said she had begun painting because it made her happy, but had never realized painting could be more than a pastime.

"I paint when I'm bored, or mad, or happy. It helps me express my feelings," Nguyen said as she sat painting three reddish-orange koi swimming across her page. "I hope it makes the person who buys it happy, too."

For many of the children, Cohen said, the auction is the only recognition for their passion and skill for art.

"I remember when I was younger, my mom would hang up my artwork on the refrigerator," she said. "Most of these kids don't have parents like that, so we show off their work to make them feel important and appreciated."

According to school district data, Wilson is a melting pot, with nearly equal numbers of Asian, Latino, African American, and white students. State test scores show they perform better than the district as a whole.

Many of Cohen's students need special help in classes but excel in art, she said. "There are kids that fail every class, but pass art with an A," she said. "This class is a place where every child can succeed."

This year's works sold for $7 to $40. A painting by Ngo - of a simple rowboat tied to the edge of the water under a blue sky - landed the top price.

"It was serene and tranquil and really captured the moment," Hill said.

Ngo also won Wilson's award for excellence in art.

"She is a dedicated young artist," said Hill, "who will take what she has learned with her into high school and beyond."


Contact staff writer Elisa Lala at elala@phillynews.com or 856-779-3970.

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