WILMETTE – It is not everyday that students have the opportunity to learn from a genuine artist at school, or one visiting from another country to boot, but that opportunity was enjoyed by 150 eighth grade students at the Wilmette Junior High School May 16 to 25.
In an art workshop taught by Swiss artist Verena Brassel, the eighth graders explored what it means to be a courageous person and how individuals can make a difference in society. The workshop was sponsored by the District 39 Educational Foundation in partnership with District 39 and funded by the Lydia Martin Memorial Fund.
Brassel, who has worked as an artist for the past 20 years in her native Switzerland, developed a workshop for students that studies courageous people throughout history who have opposed injustice. Brassel has led this workshop in Germany and Switzerland, but this program at the junior high is the first time the workshop is being taught to American students.
“It is a great honor for me to share the Courageous People Workshop with American students and to make a small contribution to helping young people think and reflect on our history — with its alternately dark and light face,” Brassel said. “It is challenging to convey history and express personal feelings in a painting, but it is important to tackle these tough subjects to ensure that we never forget,” she said.
After visiting foreign countries such as Israel and Morocco, where Brassel collected soil, artifacts and copies of ancient scriptures, the artist was greatly influenced by the countries’ history and culture. Brassel incorporates what she collects as collages into her paintings.
In the workshop, Brassel introduced to the students her layering techniques and to materials that the students hadn’t used before. Each student chose a courageous figure from a list that was compiled by Brassel and other teachers at the junior high. Some of the figures are infamous, such as Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi, while others are lesser known figures of equal stature. The students researched the figure, finding noteworthy quotes, explored what makes the individual courageous and then sketched ideas that were eventually used in a painting.
Paige Lunde, an art teacher at the junior high, noted that the workshop encourages students to delve deeply into the subject matter. “We tried to think about being a courageous person and what does that mean,” Lunde told DailyNorthShore. “We talked about experiences in our day and time and how we can notice that someone is experiencing an injustice and how we could help them,” Lunde added.
The workshop ties in with the eighth grade curriculum, where students study genocides and issues of social justice. Lunde noted the workshop’s themes are related to the book To Kill A Mocking Bird, which the students are reading.
The connection to the school’s curriculum is one of the reasons that D39 Educational Foundation invited Brassel to lead the workshop in Wilmette. Brenda Werth, who has been involved with the Foundation for six years, is a member of the fine arts committee and came up with the concept. She connected with Brassel, a distant cousin, on a family trip to Switzerland. Werth knew that her cousin had developed a workshop that focused on themes of peace, tolerance and understanding, and she thought that it would be a good fit for the District 39 Educational Foundation.
“The real appeal of her workshop was how it dovetailed with what they are doing in social studies. It examines how courageous people have made a difference in our world,” Werth said.
The workshop culminates with an art exhibition open to the public in the Wilmette Junior High School Learning Commons on May 25, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. The exhibit will be quite expansive — there are 150 students who are involved with the workshop — and Brassel sees the paintings as the students’ contribution toward the worldwide movement to “never forget” the Holocaust and other tragedies in history.
The Wilmette Park District will also exhibit some of the art pieces after the art show.