Whitehall native brings art to the people

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Messenger photo by Dianne Garrett
Whitehall native and artist Michael Sherman stands beside the mural completed through his "Accessible Arts in Alternative Venues" program. The project took two years to complete, engaging the assistance from Whitehall Yearling High School students. The mural is mounted on the outer wall of Faith Lutheran Church facing Collingwood Avenue. It is Sherman’s home church.

He can’t take all of the Whitehall residents to the art, but he can bring the art and its joy to them.

Whitehall native Michael Sherman graduated from Whitehall Yearling High School in 1999, and received a merit scholarship to attend the highly regarded Rhode Island School of Design.

In 2003 he received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, and had his first gallery show at the Providence Art Club. In the past eight years his life has been what many small town art students dream about, so he brought it home, and brought some of them into the project.

On July 7 Michael and his father, John Sherman, mounted a three-part mural he painted onto the outer, front wall of Faith Lutheran Church, facing Collingwood Avenue at Main Street.

He said that he is proud to have been able to do this for his community and display it on his home church, which held a reception after the July 8 worship services.

The project began two years ago when Sherman received a Franklin County Neighborhood Arts Grant, with the church as his sponsor, to design a mural with ten art students at his alma mater.

It is part of a larger program, "Accessible Arts in Alternative Venues," to make visual arts available to communities lacking traditional art venues such as museums or galleries.

That project comes from the idea that displaying artwork in an open and public community space can positively expose people to art in their everyday lives.

By installing the mural outside, it is stepping outside the idea that art must be viewed in traditional venues.

Sherman said, "The mural creates the opportunity for Whitehall and nearby residents to view fine arts in the suburb, and connect on a personal level to the larger art culture of central Ohio."

He approached the senior portfolio art class in the spring of 2005 through former art director Janice Plank, who has retired and moved to Los Angeles. He gave a disposable camera to each student, and sent the students out to photograph their community, capturing Whitehall through their eyes.

He then developed the photos and spread them out sharing their input. He often works with photo collages to bring a painting together.

"Whitehall does not have the architecture that some of the surrounding cities have," offered the artist. "It was interesting to see what they photographed. They did not bring back the negatives, but concentrated on the positives. They took photos of landscapes, streetscapes, some buildings in the business community, as well as homes, apartments, and anything that caught their eye."

Plank observed that class discussions led by Sherman were insightful as he critiqued their photos. "Michael worked gently with each student, encouraging them to verbalize their rationale for selecting certain objects, places or people as representatives of the city."

Sherman then selected an overall layout, which is a bit of landscape mingled with streetscape in subdued tones that pops out at passersby.

As he was mounting it a representative from a church in north Columbus approached him about doing one on their church.

Plank remembered how the class bonded when Sherman went to the board of education to present his proposal to place the mural on the side of the high school.

"Participating in a meeting with the board and listening to the politics, opinions, and dialogue between the members was a learning experience for the students," Plank recalled. "One said that could not be replicated in the classroom. For the first time some of the students discovered that they could indeed feel passionate about something that they had put personal time and commitment into."

The students were passionate about a project in their home community in which they feel invested. They did not want to project anything depressing, and kept asking themselves, "How can make it better?"

Ongoing effort

Plank shared that the project is reminiscent of one that took place in the early 1980s in Whitehall.

"As the art teacher at Beechwood Elementary, I would take my students to the Columbus Museum of Art to view the permanent and traveling exhibitions," she recalled. "This would necessitate leaving the city limits and traveling by bus to downtown Columbus. During one such trip, a student asked me why we had to travel to see art work…Why didn’t Whitehall have any art museums or galleries in the community?"

This query led Plank to launch a seven- month fifth-grade art class curriculum titled "Assembling A Museum Project."

She said that the students worked in groups investigating the status of public art in Whitehall. They discovered that the city lacked physical space that was allocated for visual arts. They began a lengthy process of examining public opinion about building a museum or an alternative space in the community, using questionnaires for their family and friends.

They then began creating hypothetical art museums and spaces for Whitehall. They even role-played as museum boards of directors, museum architects, public relations personnel and city planners. They searched out locations, and drew up plans for the building or renovation of display space, selected the artwork to be displayed, planned opening receptions and wrote critiques of the exhibitions.

"Some were quite different from the art museum norm, such as developing drive-throughs at banks and businesses as exhibition space for public art, and displaying art on outer walls of the old East Main Street School," Plank said.

That project then became a research project for The J. Paul Getty Trust in 1982. Whitehall City Schools had been selected as one of seven districts in a nationwide search by The Getty Trust to participate in a national study of art programs.

"Assembling A Museum Project" was documented in research papers and periodicals for the Trust, and part of their national platform for reform and change of public school art education programs.

Eventually, the project was featured in the educational textbook "Themes and Foundations of Art" (Plank, Katz, Lankford, McGraw Hill Publishing Co. 1995/2000), where it has served as a model for curriculum development in art programs nationally and internationally.

Given all of the effort, Whitehall was still left without accessible art venues. Plank noted that the students’ attempts to reach out to businesses to support alternative viewing spaces failed. Some offered interior space for temporary exhibitions, but no one was willing to take a risk with an abandoned building or wall to turn it over to the students for permanent art exhibitions.

In conclusion, Plank said, "That’s why I’m thrilled that Michael has decided to bring art to public places and spaces in the area where he grew up, recognizing an opportunity for him to give back to a community that he believes gave him so much. It will provide aesthetic experiences for the people of the community as they go about their daily lives, and perhaps finally answer the question posed by that one student 25 years ago after a field trip to the Columbus Art Museum."

Sherman has studied and worked in Rome, Italy, and is now working with art galleries in New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Ohio. In 2006 he received a grant from the Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation and traveled to Buenos Aires, Argentina, for two months to complete his most recent body of work, "Watercolors from Argentina." It was recently displayed at the Art Access Gallery in Bexley.

He lives and works as a full-time painter in Brooklyn, New York. To view his most recent work, visit http://www.artaccessgallery.com/HTML/sherman2.html.

He can be contacted at ohio.sherman@gmail.com or 614-352-8785.

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