Art is a potent vehicle of change for it affects both the maker and the viewer in a manner that no other medium can. SOS ART Cincinnati recognizes this and for the last 19 years has been using art as a tool for social change. One of the important activities of the organization is the annual SOS Art Exhibition featuring local artists whose works dwell on themes related to peace and justice. From the beginning an integral component of this exhibition has been the section featuring the works of children and youth. This year, however, SOS ART decided to expand the idea behind this section and create an exclusive space where youth and children could share their thoughts. The result is the first edition of ‘SOS ART 2022 Youth Exhibition’ that featured close to 200 artworks. A visit to the exhibition revealed the extraordinary diversity with which the students have interpreted the themes of peace and justice, and the breadth of their creative canvas.
The Youth Exhibition included the works of students from the Bridgetown Middle School, Butler Tech School of the Arts, Frederick Douglass Elementary School, Loveland High School, Mariemont High School, Oak Hills High School, Pleasant Ridge Community Recreation Center, Princeton High School and Seton High School. The works by these students, that were displayed in the spacious premises of the Oak Hills High School, offered much for the viewer to dwell on. This was because the artworks explored a variety of subjects ranging from gender issues, environmental issues, substance abuse, pollution to mental health, personal identity, racial justice and immigration. In expressing these themes the individual creative voice of each student rang loud and clear. Equally evident was the amount of thought that went into the conception and creation of the works.
The approach the young artists took in the exhibition could be summarized in two categories- themes that touched upon global concerns and themes that emerged from the self. By and large, the impact of the works in the exhibition was because of the manner in which these categories- the universal and the personal- intertwined to create a whole. For example, on the one hand, the work Fragile Beauty depicted the artist Ellie Cox’s struggle with acne and the consequent anxieties and effects on mental health. While this work was based on the artist’s own experience, the broader concern of mental health and the pressures of looking beautiful were aspects any viewer could relate to. On the other hand, Julia Eilers in Anything Helps focused on the prevalent issue of homelessness but used her own observation of affected individuals to flesh out the theme. Painted on cardboard, a material used by homeless people, the artist used material as a metaphor to convey the theme.
The exhibition featured certain recurring themes. Racial equity, along with related subjects such as immigration and racial justice was one such subject that several artists in the show explored. Yet another predominant theme was mental health in its various aspects, affirming the fact that any definition of peace cannot be complete in the absence of peace within. The theme of peace was also predominant in the exhibition. Since the exhibition featured the works of students from Elementary through High School, students across various age groups explored what peace meant to them in varied ways. Particularly touching were the works of young third grade students that explored the idea of peace and harmony from their own perspectives. Human Rights was also a predominant theme in the exhibition.
What was interesting to observe in the students’ exploration of this subject was the manner in which they had used another exhibition by SOS Art as a starting point for their thoughts. Fitton Center is currently playing host to a portfolio of woodcuts by artists from Mexico and Cincinnati. Focusing on the theme of human rights, artists in this show have explored various aspects such as equality, environmental justice, racial justice and so on. Students of Butler Tech School of the Arts visited this exhibition and created interdisciplinary artworks in response to this show. In addition, they also learnt about human rights in their class. Then each of the 45 students chose any one of the issues from The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and researched this in detail. The result of this exercise was a group of powerful artworks that combined symbolism with social commentary and observations of the world. One such work was Alyssa Meyer’s Ruination that focused on environmental concerns.
The Youth Art Exhibition was noteworthy for two aspects. Firstly, it was an important educative and creative intervention that sensitized young minds to issues in the world. Secondly, it was also a very instructive experience for viewers as it presented a wide range of social issues and the role that we as individuals could play. A thought-provoking exhibition such as this could not have been possible but for the effort of many people. This includes SOS Art that conceived the idea, artist and art educator Jamie Schorsch who coordinated the event, the teachers in each school who worked with students and also the students themselves.
The first edition of the Youth Art Exhibition created a powerful impression in the viewer as the artworks and their themes resonated in one’s mind long after exiting the exhibition space. Next year’s exhibition is sure to be even more impactful given that plans are in the pipeline to include more schools and feature a wider range of art forms through which the themes of peace and justice could be given expression. In the meantime, viewers can also look forward to the SOS Art Exhibition on human rights that will be held in August this year at Xavier University. Not only will viewers get to view, on a bigger scale, the exhibition of human rights that is on display at Fitton Center but they will also get the opportunity to interact with the artists who will be visiting from Mexico.