It’s National Arts in Education Week, but Hartford Public Schools is working to strengthen arts programs throughout the year. One way to do this is to create a new artist-in-residence program, which pairs students with a local artist working in the city.

The program aims to embrace art and celebrate diversity.

In downtown Harford, public art illuminates urban spaces. A Main Street mural is being finished by local artist Lindaluz Carrillo.

“Here we’re looking at Juan Flint, he’s an incredible photographer, a Puerto Rican photographer,” Carrillo said. “I feel truly honored and excited to be a part of creating this.”

His work sparks inspiration across town, where bright murals add splashes of color to the cafeteria at McDonough Middle School. This project is the brainchild of students, created last spring as part of the artist-in-residence program.

“Collaborations with local artists or just working artists are good, just to stimulate the mind creatively and also to build confidence,” Carrillo said.

The pilot program pairs a local artist of color with an art, music or drama teacher and their students. Carrillo has partnered with art teacher Jason Gilmore, creating a new opportunity for hundreds of kids at McDonough.

“It was a lot of free speech for the kids,” Gilmore said. “We really didn’t put huge parameters on what the footage would be.”

For student artists Jasmin Pagan and Angely Srolon, it was a chance to grow artistically.

“What I learned was not to be afraid to create things and do things on my own,” Srolon said.

“I feel very appreciated because just seeing everything like here and everyone can see, it feels like you’re that person everyone can get to know,” Pagan added.

Students not only express themselves through art, but embrace diversity. The theme of the project celebrates different cultures through food.

“I like to celebrate differences, differences between people, differences in everything. And I felt like that’s what it taught me,” Srolon said.

The objects represented come from different cultures.

“Grilled cheese, pineapple of course, and watermelon, and a Japanese sweetness, dragon dango!” Gilmore explained.

The theme: get together around a meal.

“At McDonough, we mix a lot of different cultures in our school. People are from Brazil, they’re from the Dominican Republic, from Puerto Rico, actually have a student from Togo, Africa,” Gilmore said.

Art sends a message.

“A family of many flavors,” Gilmore said.

It is relayed in the three primary languages ​​heard in the corridors of the school: English, Spanish and Portuguese.

“Somos una familia de muchos sabores,” reads one artwork.

School administrators say initiatives such as Artist in Residency are crucial, especially as the pandemic has taken a toll on arts education.

“A lot of our arts programs have really taken a hit,” said Tracy Avicolli, arts and wellness director for Hartford Public Schools. “So having this program linking local teacher artists with our current certified teachers has really helped kickstart and build excitement.”

That’s why the school district partnered with Hartford Performs for this pilot program.

“Students often don’t have access to or are unaware of the great artists in their community,” said Rie Poirier-Campbell, executive director of Hartford Performs. “Hartford has so many wonderful artists in the area, and we just need to connect them with young people and teachers.”

Because the program was a success this spring, it is now expanding to four colleges: beautifying Hartford, inside and out.

“I think it’s important for this particular age group, especially like middle school and younger, to be able to see what are the possibilities that, you know, we could do as artists,” said Carrillo. “I think naturally the kids are very talented.”

And the ability to create touches students on many levels.

“There were a lot of things that I went through at my age,” Srolon said. “I feel like every time I draw or do something, I feel free. Like it’s like an escape for me.

McDonough Middle School is now offering a mural tour showcasing all student art.

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