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Maryland artist inspires St. John’s students’ creativity

by Audrey Partington

Special to The Greater Olney News

Students at St. John’s Episcopal School in Olney were excited to learn that their artwork would be displayed at Sandy Spring Museum, alongside Maryland artist Normon Greene.

Dubbed “the artist with the colorful name” by some of the students when he visited them last winter, Greene inspired the budding artists to create and display their work.

“It’s one thing to see your artwork on the school walls, but seeing their work on exhibition in a grand setting like their local museum boosts their confidence,” St. John’s art teacher Maggie Lewis said.

Lewis reached out to Sandy Spring Museum director Allison Weiss last fall about providing an opportunity for her students to display their artwork.

Weiss thought Greene’s upcoming show, “Colored Folks: We Come in Every Shade,” would be the perfect companion exhibit for the students’ display. Both exhibits are on view at the museum through July 28.

Lewis worked with each grade, kindergarten through eighth, to create collaborative artwork that focuses on subjects such as reflections of themselves, their family, community, the world around them, religion, spirituality and personal values.

In addition to creating their group project on family portraits, the second-graders were chosen to work directly with Greene to create images inspired by his work.

Twenty students from all grade levels were selected as solo artists and challenged to create a work with a theme of their own choosing.

Taken as a whole, the St. John’s exhibition is titled “Our Life in Art.”

“We have a lot of good artists here,” Headmaster Tom Stevens said. “In fact, we have kids with many different kinds of strengths, from the arts to the sciences. The most important part of my job, after keeping everyone safe, is getting the right teachers — creative teachers for kids who are engaged and excited about learning.”

One such teacher is Andrea Rudolph, who likes to incorporate art into the second grade curriculum. She also keeps a good supply of over-sized stuff animals in her classroom since “everyone needs a place to fall every now and then.”

During the artist’s visit, she pointed out that Greene gives a lot of thought to his work before he starts creating.

“He plans and we ‘web’ our ideas.”

Greene’s degree in sociology from the University of Maryland prepared him for a rewarding career as a team counselor for disadvantaged youth. His minor in studio art gave him the tools to become a working artist but his mother inspired and encouraged him.

“My mother drew and I watched her,” Greene said. “One day she gave me clay and it opened a whole new world – 3D.”

During the last 40 years, Greene’s paintings and sculptures have been displayed in more than 90 festivals, schools, galleries, libraries, public recreational centers and public parks. When he retired from the YMCA in 2010, he was able to devote more time to his artwork and teaching Tai Chi. His art studio in Brentwood, Md., is called “RA” after the Egyptian god of creativity.

Greene does not shy away from confronting the issue of race in his work. By titling his exhibition “Colored Folks,” he is reclaiming and reframing the term.

“It’s an opportunity to talk freely about skin color,” Greene said. “It represents all of us – black, white and everything in between.”

The students’ works mirror that theme, in self and family portraits, as well as family activities – vacations spent with family in Paris and Jamaica, a future trip to the Taj Mahal while visiting maternal relatives in India.

Some works, like a pet turtle named “Tortilla” and a backyard in springtime, depict scenes that are closer to home, while others like a winter scene or peaceful gazebo come from the imagination. One drawing illustrates the student’s many theatrical interests, spilling out of the top half of his head.

“The school embraces diversity,” Stevens said. “Fifty-percent of our enrollment are students of color from all over the world. They must grow up in the world in which they will live.”

Greene believes we must continue to discuss the fact that we come in all shades.

“The more we hear it, the more it will set it,” he said. “We’ve got to get past it.”

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