Highland Park High School students took a hiatus from their usual lessons of reading, writing and arithmetic to celebrate the 50th biennial of “Focus of the Arts,” a three-day/four night festival that features a wide array of musical, visual, interactive, performing and applied arts. From spray painting to belly-dancing to presentations by ESPN sports agents, Focus presented to the students and community nearly every aspect of the arts.
“It is one of the premier school art festivals in the United States and there are few, if any, of this scale that are produced by public high schools,” said school Principal Tom Koulentes.
For two years, a board comprising students, staff, and community members worked tirelessly to plan and organize the festival’s classes, tutorials and workshops and recruit professional artists to teach them. For the students “It provides a new and innovative way to find our calling,” said junior Sara Moss.
Focus kicked off on April 10th with its acclaimed Movie Night. Each film was created and produced by a current HPHS. The audience was greeted with popcorn in the school’s auditorium, and treated to a dozen original films. Movie Night was a great kick off to the festivities of Focus, and the excitement for the rest of the week began bubbling through the school. Senior Samantha Agin, a board member of Focus’ Movie night, said, “It was a lot of work, but it definitely paid off in the end. The audience was in awe of the talent of their friends and other students.”
On Wednesday, the auditorium filled again as the students and community gathered to witness the official opening assembly of Focus 2015. South Shore Drill Team treated the crowd to an upbeat start to the day. The team brought to the stage a variety of forms of dance: from jazz to hip hop to modern, all while spinning and throwing batons.
“These performers were brilliant and they inspired all of our students with their precision, athleticism, beauty and energy. They were my personal favorite,” said HPHS Principal Koulentes.
The students carefully selected their schedules weeks before, with some eager students lining up as earlier as 4:30 a.m. to get their first choices. The Focus board chose the seminars with an eye to fill all kinds of artistic cravings. Some favorites included famous visitors, such as ABC7’s Mark Giangreco; a class in mastering the art of glass-blowing; and a mini-play series conducted by a troupe of HPHS student actors called Playback.
Throughout the festival, the hallways buzzed with students discussing the coolest author they met or showing off the crafted pens they skillfully made in a woodworking class. Being able to explore the arts was “The opportunity of a lifetime,” said junior Madison Harris.
The Focus festival continued beyond the daily school hours. On Tuesday night, HPHS welcomed legendary jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis. The three-time Grammy award winner wowed the crowd with his skill and presence. Outstanding performances by HPHS’s own Jazz Ensemble, Chamber Orchestra and Chorale topped off the evening.
On the following night, the color filled the school hallways in a makeshift art gallery, featuring visual art including paintings; live works of art by a contortionist who painted with her toes holding the brush; sugar decoratively spun into inventive designs that tasted as good as they looked; and models body-painted in bold water colors. Finally on Thursday an incredible dance show wrapped up the week, headlined by some of Chicago’s top professional dance companies as well as student groups. The ever-changing temperament of the show gave Dance Night a memorable feel.
“Focus is a true school-community program,” said Principal Koulentes. “Over 200 artists conduct 250 workshops for 2,100 students over three days. All of this is coordinated by over 300 community volunteers. In an era of budget cuts and elimination of art programs in schools, Focus on the Arts is Exhibit A that our community treasures the fine arts and is committed to instilling a strong arts education in our students.”
For 50 years now, Focus has been one of the most anticipated treasures of Highland Park. It provides a diversion for community members to connect to their artistic side and a forum for students to discover their creative passions.
Focus board leader Nancy Mills said, “It was great to see months of hard work pay off with so many inspiring workshops and performances. One of my favorite things is how students, staff, parents, and the community join together to make it happen.”
Reporter Tori Boorstein and photographer Justine Rudy are juniors at HPHS.