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Community project teaches fine arts students more than photography

June 5th, 2009

By Janene Zaccone

When University of Louisville photography professor Mary Carothers scheduled four sessions this spring for her students to work with kids from St. Joseph Children’s Home, she never imagined that they would ask to continue the project for three months.

Carothers’ students worked throughout the semester with children between the ages of 6 and 13. They taught them to take photos and “paint” with light and helped them make scrapbooks and “lifebooks.” They also took portraits of the children dressed as superheroes of their own imagining.

Mostly, however, they developed relationships and became involved in the community.

“This was a learning experience beyond what I could teach in class,” said Carothers, who received a grant from UofL’s Ideas to Action program to fund this and a public art project.

The UofL students began to care genuinely more about the emotional aspects of the work and how it connected to the children, she said, and the children began to look up to them as true mentors and role models.

The experience was “fast-paced” and “explored fantastic outlets for children that have little individual attention,” said senior fine arts major Jimmy DeVore. “At times working in groups, and at times one on one, we were able to truly empower the children by supporting their creativity and helping coax it into beautiful work that they had no idea they were capable of.”

Carothers first brought photography students together with St. Joseph children three years ago for a similar, but shorter, project.

Alumna Amerisa Waters worked with the children then as a student. She came back as a volunteer on her days off to help this year.

Waters helped the children make scrapbooks and interviewed them for the superhero project, asking them what superpower they would like to have.

“I think it is such a good question and was so interesting to have that conversation,” Waters said. “One of the students I interviewed was having kind of a rough day, and when asked about her superpower she said she wants to be a fairy godmother who has a magic wand that makes bad feelings go away. It touched me and it inspires me to do more since I think we all need that wand!”

Carothers’ students designed the costumes based on the children’s answers to the question.

“We made the costumes using clothes from thrift stores as well as our own random parts of costumes from our childhood,” said Lucy Brown, a senior photography student from Louisville.

“The St. Joe’s kids came down to UofL’s campus and we did a photo shoot in our studio,” she continued. “It was so much fun! However, the best part was the kid’s opening at the student gallery (Rouge Noir Gallery, 333 E. Market St.). It was great to see the kids so excited about all of their — and our — hard work.”

To Carothers, the superhero project showed just how much the students had connected with the children. They took creation of each costume seriously, she said, because they had developed relationships with the children. That also showed in the portraits.

“What I saw (in those portraits) revealed strong qualities in those children that I’m not so sure could have been revealed without the connection of working together three months before the superhero session,” she said.

The Ideas to Action program is intended to provide opportunities that challenge UofL students to think critically and become involved in the community. For Devore, the project did just that.

“It was crucial that we as university students push ourselves to be as creative as possible in helping others be as creative as possible,” Devore said. “There was an incredible level of involvement with the most important asset of our community — its children. By being involved in this project, we were able to change the minds of underprivileged children and allow them to see that they are capable of so much more than some of them may have thought.”

The children weren’t the only ones who changed because of the project.

“While working with these children I decided I want to pursue teaching in a non-traditional setting with people in the community,” Waters said. “In order to work towards this goal I am starting the master’s program at UofL in the fall for women’s and gender studies. I think this project helped me to refocus on my goals and motivate me to pursue them.”

Devore also saw changes in himself.

“It opened my eyes more than ever to the fact that I can make a positive and impacting change on an individual basis,” he said. “Through this project, I have become empowered as well — I made a difference through being selfless and truly helping others achieve their potential.”

For Brown, the experience was affirming.

“I felt at home working with the kids,” she said. “If anything, it reinforced the feeling that this is the kind of work I should be doing.”

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