Art as Subtle Activism - Dr. Julianne Mia De Sal, Director of Arts

A recent Quartzy Newsletter included an article that discussed novelist Haruki Murakami’s speech at an October New York Times event. 

The author explained how in 2011, he felt helpless after the terrorist attacks and the natural disasters affecting Japan at that time, and he wondered what he could do to make things better, to make him feel like he was a part of some solution or cure. He realized, as basic as this may sound, that as a novelist, he could continue to write good stories and that his words might move the reader to a better place in thought and action.
This idea of using our art to be fully present in the world is hardly a new one. The ancient Greeks believed in the power of catharsis; modern dance pioneer, Martha Graham, utilized the invocation of myth to create a new notion of a dance-theater; and British street artist, Banksy, continues to create provocative meaning out of images and words that articulate urban walls. Yet, today, the belief that art is endowed with the power to balance, heal, and enlighten, which was the creed of ancient theater, is often considered trite because we are living in an age where we want to fix problems immediately—find the cure, change a mindset, glue together wanton parts—so that they go away never to be seen again. Our students tell us that they have discovered very little is a quick fix in their world, and they turn to their art for a bounty of reasons, including self-expression, making meaning, wrestling with conflict, and sometimes, a vindicated escape. They may not yet realize that the simple act of sharing out what they do so well, and with such heart, is a way of allaying what ails us.
Murakami may write fiction, but this past spring, and yes, under the veil of quarantine, art students at Sierra Canyon School presented our community with real events and accomplishments. Starting with Lower School, our String Party and Orchestra music students presented a zoom violin concert on May 26th. They genuinely took this performance seriously and dressed as though they were playing a live concert with amazing focus and grace. Young dance students choreographed short works from home, complete with their own costuming. Visual arts offered an array of unique distanced projects from a Grade 2 architecture lesson on tension and compression, with students meeting in breakout rooms to figure out how to shape a single piece of paper to hold up a stack of books. Eye/hand coordination and beginning drawing skills continued to be taught as our pre-K and Kindergarten students learned how to use three-dimensional shapes to create characters from their favorite games. Grade 5 learned about artist Frida Kahlo, studying her style and technique to create their own self-portraits. One fascinating assignment in Grade 6 was the “apple” challenge—drawing a realistic apple using cross complementary colors. This grade also requested a lesson to draw one of their heroes, Kobe Bryant, and they accomplished this by learning how to break down an image into simple shapes in order to draw realism.
Upper campus students were equally engaged with several projects and performance opportunities, including what I call the double dozen--12 films and 12 monologues. The 10th annual Sierra Canyon Film Festival kicked off on May 19th, moving online to celebrate a year of filmmaking accomplishments. This year the festival boasted 12 short films exclusively by Sierra Canyon students—both newcomers and experienced seniors. Film instructors, Dan Gvozden and Mikael Romano brought students together for the event, followed by a question and answer session led by graduating senior, Dylan Guss. Mr. Gvozden noted that there was “magic in the air” during this session, and I have to agree with him as I watched students confidently navigate this discussion, infusing a less than ideal situation with energy and artistry, and providing an inspiring evening of film viewing. Click here to view the Film Festival.
Also, Studio actors can actually say that SC held a spring theater production. Close-ups—from a Social Distance, is a series of 12 literary monologues which I directed through individual and group zoom meetings. Students were tasked with videoing themselves in portrait mode, which Mr. Gvozden edited into one cohesive online production complete with some very cool jazz music played by music teacher, Carl Oser. The effect is that of an intimate black box production or a personal facetime call, depending on how you look at it. Click here to view Close-ups – from a Social Distance.
One of the most successful events of the spring was our Thursday Night Live (TNL) spearheaded by Mr. Oser with the eager participation of many SC performers. Students had the opportunity to apply to perform on any given Thursday night or simply log in and hang out for the entertainment. We had vocal and instrumental performances, one photo sharing, monologues, and poetry. All totaled, TNL featured over 40 performances and culminated with a special edition—Before We Sleep—dedicated to our youngest students, including prospective families. Over 50 people attended this final TNL of the year, including parents, teachers, administrators, and students from all three divisions. The performances included a lullaby in Hebrew, one in Yiddish, classical piano, and a children’s story presented in Spanish, La Casa Adormecida (The Napping House).
But that is not all. Middle Schoolers created their own recordings using a cloud-based digital audio workstation. High School vocalists received one on one instruction, performing for each other as well as recording projects, and Acting students told their own stories through per instruction inspired by The Moth Radio Hour. Among many intriguing visual art projects, students actually created paintings using coffee grounds, and department chair, Wendy Northrup, says that sculpture students became very creative erecting works out of aluminum foil, junk mail postcards, paper towel tubes, and other found objects. Also, upper campus dance teacher, Lilia Kibarska, produced a touching dance video, Rise Up, an anthem to the resilience of our students, performed by Hannah Sullivan. One other project that resulted in some very unique work was the Page 76 Arts Challenge, through which a student or faculty member, was asked to take page 76 from any book and present the essence of that page in a different art form be it 2D or 3D art, a music composition, or even a work of dance. Most books chosen were fiction, but we did have one cookbook in the mix, and the student made that recipe and photographed the outcome. Click here to view these projects.
This marks the culmination of my first year at Sierra Canyon School, and an unexpected end to the year it was. Yet, when I look back over the course of this spring’s challenges, I cannot help but be motivated by the sincerity and wealth of what our students produced, as well as the authenticity of their intentions. Like the writer, Haruki Murakami, our young artists pour their souls into their endeavors. They sing, play, act, dance, film, photograph, and paint without requesting felicity. They ask only to be heard, to be considered, and for their audiences to make personal what they so generously lay out like a feast before them. They do this on good days and on bad days—on days when they feel in tune and on days when the world handed to them is just slightly dissonant. In this way, they are curing the world just by being who they are. We can learn from their example to use what we, as adults, own within us, to illumine our skies this summer, to forget our sometimes overstressed and harried selves, and find joy in the practice of art.
Julianne Mia De Sal, Ph.D.
Director of Arts
Lower School: 11052 Independence Avenue
Middle and Upper School: 20801 Rinaldi Street
Chatsworth, CA 91311  | 818.882.8121
Sierra Canyon School is a private, independent, non-sectarian, co-educational, college preparatory school for students in grades Pre-Kindergarten through 12 located in Chatsworth, California. The highly cosmopolitan campus community is reflective of the Greater Los Angeles area and the world at large. Students are empowered to realize their greatest creative, ethical, intellectual and physical promise through small class sizes, a diverse student-teacher culture and a family-like environment.