ARCHER HEIGHTS — Andres Hernandez has a degree from Cornell and a commission from the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, but today he's teaching Ms. Xanos' eighth-period art class at Curie Metropolitan High School.
Hernandez, who prefers text and photos to paint, doesn't have a brush or easel. He shows the students pictures instead: one of outstretched hands, the next of protesters in Ferguson, Mo.
The students are asked how these images relate to what they see living on the city's Southwest Side. They come up with some adjectives. Then they get to work.
"I'm always inspired by young people because this is their perspective on stuff," Hernandez, 42, says. "They have a fresh perspective."
Hernandez, who's on sabbatical from his regular job teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, isn't a substitute for the day. He's been at Curie, 4959 S. Archer Ave., since September as its first-ever "resident artist" through a new pilot program from the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Museum officials hope its SPACE — School Partnership for Art And Civic Engagement — program can bridge the gap between the arts and kids amid the constant budget crunch at Chicago Public Schools.
"We are making sure to match it with schools in which we can make a difference," said Marissa Reyes, associate director of education at the museum, 220 E. Chicago Ave.
One Curie student made this poster after Hernandez's exercise. [DNAinfo/David Matthews]
Curie, one of Chicago's largest high schools with nearly 3,000 students, cleared out part of a teacher's lounge to make way for Hernandez's new studio last fall.
Hernandez, a trained architect who's working on an urban renewal project for Pulitzer in St. Louis, has kept the room spare. The only signs this is an artist's studio are the blueprints pinned to the wall, or maybe the bucket of bricks from St. Louis sitting in the corner.
"To do my work I have to be out and about," Hernandez said.
Hernandez works on his projects and hosts "open studio" hours for students here. When he's not, he's helping out Curie art teachers with their classes. The program, of course, has paid for a Curie field trip to the museum, where many of Hernandez's students haven't been before.
"Watching people feeling uncomfortable or not," Hernandez said of the trip. "'Do I lean on the wall?' Things like that."
Armed with donations and a new grant from the city, the museum hopes it can expand the program to more schools in disadvantaged areas aiming to tie art to civics. They found a good school for the pilot in Curie, where CPS says 92 percent of students live in low-income households.
Two Curie students have been killed in the three months since Hernandez set up shop in the school, and gun violence has been a key theme in students' work, he said. So has police brutality, and so have been the race-tinged protests in Mount Greenwood after the fatal police shooting of Joshua Beal there in the fall. Student definitions of their own, personal "safe spaces" adorn a wall in Hernandez's studio.
"My hope is that the things I bring: my work and the things I'm teaching, open up peoples' ideas about what art is and what art could be," Hernandez said. "And through creative activism we can make change in our world."
The students in Valerie Xanos' class, none of whom plan on becoming professional artists themselves, finish their exercise. They get the message.
Art is "something that's always going to be there to help relieve anxiety," said Gabi Pinela, a junior at Curie. "It's relaxing, considering I was going through s--- like any other teenager."
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