Blast from the Past: East Side Renaissance
When people think of East St. Louis, especially people from outside of the community, images of brokenness, poverty, dilapidation, corruption, drug use, and violence typically come to mind stretching out to a 500-mile radius. We do factor into St. Louis repeatedly receiving the highest homicide rate in the United States, and the only U.S. city to make the 20 highest homicide rates in the world. Given that we have and continue to work in a number of the other cities in the top twenty as an organization, that is a big statement. However, it is with that same insight that we know that many of these images people hold in their heads are unwarranted and a mere fragment of the story of our city. Like most communities plagued by poverty, our citizens have so much more to offer.
In 2019, one of Go! International's Board Members, world-renowned artist and East St. Louisan Edna Patterson Petty, came in to teach art classes to our students. We would end up with over 70 children total participating over nine months culminating with an art exhibit at the illustrious Sheldon Art Gallery in St. Louis! The exhibit was aptly titled "East Side Rennaissance", as the students would take recycled found objects from around the city turning them into beautiful works of art, denoting not only the transformation of their city through their own eyes, but of the changes and the beauty within them as artists envisioning a better today for East St. Louis. It was a cathartic process as students described their grievances in their work while transforming their tragedies into an aesthetic of triumphant hope.
They produced over 70 pieces using would scraps, tires, hub caps, abandoned sign blocks, and they combined them with African cloths they acquired in the travels on study trips to East and West Africa, shells from beaches of 16 countries our kids have been to, varnished stalks from a self-fertilized corn they imported and cultivated, colorings from a series of books on African culture and history sent to us by a woman from the Gambia we met on another trip, and plenty of layers of colorful paint. They were layering and repurposing the objects that represented the awful view people have of the city with elements of their incredible endeavors here and around the world to show their true potential.
February 14th of 2020, Valentine's Day in the middle of Black History month, a small crew of our students along with Mrs. Patterson-Petty arrived for opening night of their art exhibition, "East Side Rennaissance". They were eager to impress, ready to show the gallery patrons the fruits of their creative minds. Also entrepreneur students, they didn't hesitate to sell their works to the highest bidders, making some good money that they would then deposit into their bank account with our financial literacy program partners, Scott Credit Union. The evening was magical, and the kids felt as unique and celebrated as they truly deserved for all of their hard work. To this day, their works are on permanent display at the Christian Activity Center in their wellness hallway, and the tire pieces have served as raised beds for flowers and aromatic herbs in their urban farm, a reminder of our community's potential to grow.