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A lesson in self-reflection for Mother Caroline Academy sixth-graders

Mandile Mpofu
A lesson in self-reflection for Mother Caroline Academy sixth-graders
Sixth-graders at Mother Caroline Academy displayed their artworks at the Gutman Library in the Harvard Graduate School of Education. PHOTO: Mother Caroline Academy

On a recent Friday, Love Clerveau, a sixth-grader at Mother Caroline Academy in Dorchester, stood in a hallway in her school, making peace signs with each of her hands, a tentative grin across her face. Next to her was a mirror image of sorts: a self-portrait she made as part of an art program.

The piece, which she titled “Black and White – for myself,” is contained within an oval frame bordered by translucent, frilly trim. It depicts Clerveau against a light blue background, clad in a collaged, patterned outfit and large iridescent sunglasses — a highly coveted gift from her cousin, she said — also making peace signs.

Sixth-grader Love Clerveau said while the exercise was challenging, she was proud of her artwork. PHOTO: MANDILE MPOFU

“I really, really, really spent a lot of time making my skin color. I’m really proud of that,” Clerveau said of the process of creating the art. “And I want to tell everybody that, because I’m really proud of that. My skin color took so much time, especially when you’re working with pastels.”

Clerveau was one of 16 MCA students who created self-portraits during the school’s annual, year-long partnership with nonprofit arts organization Step Into Art. The collaboration kicked off with a visit to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, as students sought inspiration. It culminated in a weeks-long exhibit at the Gutman Library in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where the youths displayed their completed artworks and accompanying artist statements, months in the making.

The students’ artworks were inspired by Gio Swaby, a Bahamian artist who uses textiles and collage to create art celebrating Blackness. At the start of the program, Swaby offered the students guidance. The students in turn reflected Swaby’s work in their own, incorporating a varied mix of loose threads, lacy fabrics and collage to tell their stories.

For the students at MCA — the only all-girls tuition-free school in Boston, according to its website — the partnership was an exercise in confronting the emotions that emerge during middle school, said Kiera Powers, assistant director of development at MCA, who helmed the art project.

Mother Caroline Academy’s partnership with Step Into Art gives students a competitive edge in high school applications, according to Kiera Powers, assistant director of development at MCA. PHOTO: MOTHER CAROLINE ACADEMY

“Kids are going through a lot during this time. There’s a lot of questions about body image and self-awareness, and just being cognizant of how they look …” she said. “So I think that one of the biggest challenges that they encountered was just trying to draw themselves and to feel comfortable with that and comfortable with maybe it not looking exactly the way they wanted it to.”

To help students navigate this, Powers had them turn their pieces upside down, which she said provided a shift in perspective and an avenue to tackle any insecurities. In the end, the students embraced the challenge, encouraging each other along the way.

“Art is kind of fun, but I cannot draw for nothing,” said Clerveau candidly. The student struggled with the piece at first, and while she said found it “absolutely hard,” she also “went with the flow” and relished the chance to express herself, flex her creativity and have her artwork on view in the library.

While the exhibit at Harvard has ended, community members are welcome to visit the school on Blue Hill Avenue until June 7 to see the fruits of the collaboration between MCA and Step Into Art. Powers called the partnership exemplary of the school’s holistic programming. Initiatives such as these, she added, give students a competitive edge in high school applications and offer a moment of self-reflection.

“I think it’s important for middle schoolers … to push themselves out of their comfort zone, do things that they’ve never done before, and things that feel a little scary are a little hard,” she said, “because I think it teaches them a lot about themselves … I think it helps them to learn a little bit about who they are, who they want to be, or what they struggle with or don’t struggle with.”

arts, Mother Caroline Academy, self-portraits