Earlier this year, as they were embarking upon a joint venture with the arts and humanities departments, students at Westchester High Enriched Magnets, formerly Westchester High School, could not have fathomed that an international tragedy that was about to unfold would make what they were creating more significant than they ever imagined.
At the time, neither students nor teachers could predict that the ancient Japanese short form of poetry called haiku they were practicing and combining with visual art would lead to a public display of their efforts as well as pave the way toward a path of self-discovery for some of the young artists.
The joint art project was supervised by teacher Suzann Sass of the art department and Carolyn Stebbins, who teaches in the humanities department at the high school. Seniors and juniors formed the majority of the classes, but there are a few sophomores and freshmen.
In Sass’ class, kaleidoscope images were created by a group of students and later in Stebbins’ class, haikus were written about the drawings that the students in English class viewed. Initially, some of the students could not understand the connection – or importance – of learning to write the Japanese poetry.
Then, on March 21, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, one of the five most powerful recorded earthquakes, devastated Japan. Registering a magnitude of 9.0 on the Richter scale, the earthquake and subsequent tsunami caused over 15,000 deaths, incalculable damage to the region’s infrastructure and left countless injured or homeless and millions without water and electricity.
After reading how Japanese poets were writing haikus to express their emotions about the natural disaster, the poetry lessons suddenly became relevant, Westchester students said.
Junior Beatrice Ackers said the project gave her insight into how inspirational written and visual art can be.
“During the process of writing haiku, I learned that one’s imagination can take (you) anywhere; it opens up one’s mind,” she said. “It taught me to think with more creativity and look at art in a new way.”
Donya Smith, a senior, learned to overcome the initial difficulties with the visual art portion of the project.
“This kaleidoscope project was very difficult at first because the design process was unique. Keeping the patterns together was frustrating because if I wasn’t correct we had to do it over,” he said. “In the end it all came together.”
The three components, or qualities of haiku include what is known as “cutting” or kiru. It is often represented by the juxtaposition of two images or ideas and a kireji, or “cutting word” between them, a type of verbal punctuation mark which signals the moment of separation and colours the manner in which the juxtaposed elements are related.
A kigo or seasonal reference, usually drawn from a saijiki, is an extensive but defined list of such words. The majority of kigo, but not all, are drawn from the natural world. This, combined with the origins of haiku in pre-industrial Japan, has led to the inaccurate impression that haiku are necessarily nature poems.
Stebbins was impressed with how her students reacted individually to writing the haikus.
“What I witnessed in my classroom was some of the students went very deep and very analytical,” she recalled. “I enjoyed watching the process of the students actually delving deeply into their creativity, while some just stayed on the surface.”
In March, the students’ artwork and poetry was displayed in one of the galleries at Loyola Marymount University. Sass and Stebbins had contacted the university to inquire about a possible exhibit, and on March 18, the humanities/arts collaboration, “Haiku and Hue” made its debut at the Hannon Library.
“(The venture between LMU and the high school) is a perfect example of the work that LMU wants to do with the Family of Schools,” LMU Family of Schools Assistant Director Margaret Bove said. “I thought the collaboration between the humanities and art was really inspiring.”
The magnet high school, which recently was converted from a community school, as well as Orville Wright Middle School and the five Westchester elementary schools are all members of the Family of Schools, which focuses on creating and supporting a partnership between the university and the schools in the Westchester area.
The students appeared to take inspiration from the project as well, but not without initial apprehension.
“I have always been creative with art and enjoyed writing. My favorite hobby is painting in the abstract to express my feelings,” said Ackers. “When my teacher presented the writing assignment with the abstract art I was nervous. I didn’t think I was going to do well on the assignment because I find it hard to see exactly what the artist is portraying if the artist isn’t me.”
Stebbins observed a sense of self-awakening within some of her students as they applied themselves to learning how to write haikus and relating them to the kaleidoscope art.
“Some students discovered things about themselves,” she said. “So the art of self-discovery was involved and that was really nice.”
Smith said the painstaking work required for the project helped him discover that patience can be a virtue. “I discovered that taking the time to do something complicated was worth it. It felt great to have accomplished this project,” he said. “I know now that I can do anything if I put my mind to it.”
Sass said that it was not uncommon that some of the poetry written about the Japanese tragedy was quite moving, and that was another lesson that the students learned.
“Out of the human nature of observing something beautiful or experiencing something tragic, there is a beauty in poetry,” the art teacher said.
Stebbins said besides the students learning the important lesson of how they can express themselves in a new and exotic manner, she wanted them to know that they had undergone a transformation, perhaps without realizing it.
“I remember telling them after the project was over, ‘Like it or not, you are now all poets,’” Stebbins said. “And they had never thought that way about themselves before.”