‘Newcomer’ students find a sense of home at The Art Base in Basalt
Pueden encontrar la versión en español aquí.
Even on a cold, cloudy December afternoon in downtown Basalt, the classroom upstairs at The Art Base felt warm with collaboration and creativity as students put the finishing touches on boxes meant to resemble houses and represent a sense of “home” in the Roaring Fork Valley.
Community partners have collaborated for years on this program called “Home” for “newcomer” students at Basalt High School who immigrated to the United States just months ago and are now partway through their first year in an American public school.
After a two-year pandemic hiatus, the program returned this fall. The students’ work will be on display in an exhibition at The Art Base gallery Friday through Dec. 28 before the pieces are installed as little free libraries in neighborhoods around Basalt. (The town of Basalt supported the library-building project, and Aspen Sister Cities helped bring in a Spanish-speaking teacher for the classes.)
Dr. Leticia Guzman-Ingram teaches newcomer math and other offerings such as American history, English as a second language and special education at Basalt High. She said the majority of the newcomer students are from El Salvador; others are from Guatemala, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.
Some come with their families, but others have traveled here alone. After school, they work late into the night to support themselves before waking up early for class the next day.
“They have left their homes, a lot of them have come from very dangerous situations, a lot of poverty,” Guzman-Ingram said. “And they come here to get a better education, … and they feel safe, and their life's not in danger and they just blossom here.”
That blossoming happens, in part, at The Art Base, where the students have shown up about once a week since October to design and decorate six little free libraries.
Valeria Fiala, a visiting artist from Bariloche, Argentina, teaches the class in Spanish, with a focus on self-expression through art as a universal language.
While having fun — sharing food, playing music, and stapling and gluing materials to their libraries — they’re also learning. The process teaches them about the mathematics of dimensions and design, which Guzman-Ingram appreciates, and also about the possibilities that await with determination and ingenuity. That’s a message Fiala hopes to share with the students through the creative process.
“They can build their life, they can build their future, they can build their homes, with whatever they have,” she said. “They don't need much more than will, wishes, energy and good ideas for making their dreams come true.”
Fiala said the little free libraries are mostly decorated with recycled and repurposed materials, things the students found around the house or around The Art Base.
One student pulls from a box of small wood scraps to make signs identifying each of the little library themes.
One library looks like a piñata, one resembles a satellite tower and one is decorated with the flags of countries around the world. Pingpong balls turned into eyeballs for a spooky Halloween-themed little library. Rocks adorned one house designed to look like Basalt Mountain and small pine cones and ornaments became part of the decoration for a Christmas-themed casa. (Even an unattended plastic case for this reporter's tape recorder nearly became part of the project: Its somewhat trapezoidal shape looks a bit like a coffin, fitting for the theme of the Halloween house.)
“It’s like a representation of what they can do with their lives. If they want something, they can do it, … and with the things that they have,” Fiala said.
The program also prompts students to think about the concept of “Home,” and what it means to become a part of a community.
Guzman-Ingram said students wrote about what home means to them in their ESL and Spanish classes at Basalt High.
At The Art Base, Fiala asked students to imagine their dream home and to draw what they consider “home” right now, to get the wheels turning.
“They want to make a life here,” Fiala said.
Fiala said these houses represent the future for this cohort of students. She encourages the students to maintain their little libraries once they debut on street corners in Basalt, to instill a sense of ownership and care for their creations.
And at the opening reception for this year’s “Home” exhibition at The Art Base gallery on Friday, members of the community are encouraged to contribute to the project by bringing books in Spanish and English to fill the little libraries.
Art Base program director Paul Keefe said exhibiting the “Home” project in the same gallery that hosts well-known artists year-round fosters a welcoming and encouraging environment for students who he hopes continue to engage in the arts after the program is finished.
“One of the goals of the gallery space downstairs is not only to show very high quality artwork from renowned artists, but also to represent the community as a whole,” Keefe said. “And these newcomer students are just as much of a part of the community as anybody, and I think that this exhibition opportunity for these students is really important for them.
“It might inspire some of them to pursue a career in the arts, and I think that it's a great way to represent more of our community.”
Guzman-Ingram said the “Home” program is a “bridge of cultures” that helps dissolve the intimidation factor that she has observed between her Spanish-speaking students and English-speaking members of the community.
“I decided that we really needed to look at taking away fear of each other and feeling safe with each other, especially in this community,” she said.
Fiala said art can facilitate understanding — that it’s a healing mode of communication and one that can teach the artists about themselves as well as others.
One of the students, Maritza Membreno Portillo, who is from El Salvador, said she can share how she feels through what she creates.
In an interview in Spanish during one of the classes at The Art Base, she said she feels that art is beautiful, because it allows one to express emotions through painting.
Guzman-Ingram feels the same way.
“Everyone can speak art, you know?” Guzman-Ingram said. “Maybe you can’t speak Spanish, maybe you can’t speak English, but you can speak art, and it opens the doors for so many expressions and a voice.”