Shreveport often gets a bum rap.
“It’s east Texas,” claim many, as though that’s a bad thing. This Red River city fights for not only Louisiana’s embrace, but also the South’s.
And yet Shreveport, along with nearby north Louisiana cities such as Natchitoches and Bossier City, cheers on the Saints and LSU. They talk about New Orleans like it’s an old friend, asking about Café du Monde, Chef Paul Prudhomme, and French Quarter Fest.
Most important, the area excels by example, particularly when it comes to education and the arts. The ArtBreak Festival in April is the ‘largest annual student arts festival in the South,’ and events such as the Red River Revel next month and the Louisiana State Fair help support these programs, as well as the Louisiana State Exhibit Museum.
The schools follow suit, responding to the community’s love of the arts with enthusiasm, as we saw during visits to area schools last week.
“I took what I learned from studying Michelangelo's figure drawing and turned it around, transforming it into a Cajun,” explains George Rodrigue to sixth graders at Natchitoches Primary Magnet School in Natchitoches, Louisiana.
The students study within a 1960s building. They seem oblivious to the exposed wires and pipes, happy instead to have an art room, a recently converted girls’ dressing room, complete with floor drains, sinks, and a new Smartboard, donated by a generous alum.
Before converting this room and securing donations, such as their recent allotment from George’s Art Closet, the school’s one art teacher pushed a cart from class to class, struggling to teach one thousand students with a mere $200 per year in supplies.
“What are you working on?” I ask some of the lucky 320 high school students at the Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts — a facility the opposite of the one we just left, only a few miles away.
They shared their drawings, headstone designs for Kurt Cobain and Steve Jobs, reminding me of George Rodrigue’s imaginary album covers from art school in the 1960s.
To my surprise, this boarding high school, also in Natchitoches, is state-funded. I struggled to steady my jaw as we toured the facility, where students recreate shoes on potter’s wheels, design programs on Apple computers, and study photography with large cameras on tripods.
According to Executive Director, Dr. Pat Widhalm, more than 400 students apply annually, with the school accepting 110, representing more than 70 parishes.
Chris King, the tattoo-covered, long haired art teacher previously at Beverly Hills High School, designed the expansive art rooms. He inspires and enchants Louisiana’s students in this conservative north/central town.
“It’s been four years now, and we’re starting to feel adjusted,” says wife Erin King with a wink.
At Youree Drive Middle School in Shreveport, we talk about the power of ideas and imagination, about painting for one’s self as opposed to others, about keeping one’s work exciting.
“What’s your favorite painting?” a student asks George Rodrigue.
“The one I’m working on now,” he replies.
At Parkway High School in Bossier City, the students, according to art teacher Mrs. Jacobe, forgot their Homecoming festivities that afternoon, buzzing instead with not only excitement for the Arts, but also excitement for their potential in whatever their passion.
“When you create up here,” explains George Rodrigue, pointing to an imaginary dot six inches above an imaginary yardstick of art (held horizontally from the Renaissance at zero inches to Contemporary Art at thirty-six), “you’re by yourself, and no one can touch you.”
At our last stop, Claiborne Elementary Magnet School in Shreveport, the third graders taught us more than we taught them. They shout out the colors and question the designs. They use their imagination to paint their own world, without embarrassment or inhibition.
“It took me a whole lifetime to learn how to draw like a child again,” said Pablo Picasso, famously.
It was not Picasso, however, but the children in this north Louisiana city that reminded us of this valuable lesson.
Wendy Rodrigue (a.k.a. Dolores Pepper)
—On the way home, we made memories at Lea’s Pies-
—This week we visit schools in the Florida Panhandle. I hope you’ll join me for these adventures and more on my new facebook page-