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Friday, February 4, 2011

Student Exhibition Opens to Rave Reviews

Student Exhibition Opens to Rave Reviews:
Fairfield Museum debuts 
‘Our Nation’s Generations’
(Posted to 2/4)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – Normally a fairly tranquil place, the venue echoed with excited chatter, laughter and chirpy shouts, much like the halls of a busy elementary school. As such, it was no surprise to find a pack of bubbly fifth graders at the heart of the din, celebrating themselves and their achievements.

The setting early Thursday evening was the Fairfield Museum and History Center on Beach Road and the fifth graders, 21 students in all, were from the New Beginnings Family Academy of Bridgeport. The students, several teachers, school administrators, museum personnel and a number of parents had all come together for the opening reception of “Our Nation’s Generations”, a new student exhibition featuring a mixed media story quilt, personal artifacts and writings that explore the broad and modern view of family. Also introduced were narrative quilts and illustrations by celebrated artist Faith Ringgold that served as inspiration for the project.

“We’ve been doing outreach programs for the past two years at the museum, working closely with teachers at a lot of different area schools,” said Christine Jewell, the museum’s director of educational programs. “Programs have often related to family and family history, which allows children to explore and connect with the past and make it relevant to their lives today. We’ve also been focused on identifying particular objects like family heirlooms and artifacts that tell stories. In planning an exhibit for Black History Month, we wanted to keep the family orientation and object focus. But rather than focus on ancestors, we wanted to focus on present-day family members or friends that are role models.”

Jewell worked with faculty at New Beginnings to create a student-developed exhibit that showcases work reflecting and capturing the relationship they have with the role models. “They interviewed them, identified objects that connected to that person then created central quilt squares that represent that individual,” said Jewell.

The squares were integrated into one overall class quilt which is now displayed alongside select family artifacts, the students’ essays about their role models, framed illustrations from Faith Ringgold’s children’s books and two of her quilts, respectively titled “Tar Beach” and “My Ancestors.”

“New Beginnings is all about getting kids to think about their future and own abilities, and confidence to believe in themselves,” said Ronelle Swagerty, from the school’s development office. “One student’s thought for an object was her mother’s high school diploma, which was a great achievement in her eyes.”

“My inspiration was my older brother Marcus,” said student Jaleah Bennett, 10. “In times when he has struggled, he has always managed to get through. When I have problems, I think about that and it helps me.”

Bennett’s essay about her brother hung in a frame above a glass display case that contained some of his personal items including a baseball trophy, an athletic shoe, his honor roll certificate and the crown he wore as king of his senior prom.

“My mom is my role model,” said Bennett’s classmate Eyga Williamson, 10. “In a bad predicament, she taught me that everything is going to be o.k. If we’re having trouble, she tells us not to hold our feelings inside and to express ourselves.”

Williamson’s mother, Lakesha Jackson, was honored by the tribute. “It makes me feel very proud. I work hard to be a good example to my children. I always try to encourage them to push themselves to the limit.”

“This is really exciting,” said student Imani Williams. “We worked really hard on this. It’s amazing to see our artwork in a museum.” 

William’s pal Imani Hall noted the educational aspect of the project. “Faith Ringgold taught us how to show our feelings about who we’re writing about. We read her poetry and it helped us write our own pieces of work.”

For Christine Listorti, executive assistant to Paul Whyte, New Beginnings’ principal, the exhibit recalled moments from her past. “These quilts bring back memories of my childhood and my grandparents making quilts in the big room at home with neighbors.”

Both faculty and museum staff made a few remarks at the reception, including Principal Whyte, who noted, “Demographics is not destiny,” and the school’s art teacher, Jennifer Strausser, who said the children “really rose to the challenge and worked together” given the compressed time the class had because of the holidays and all the recent snow days.

As Christine Jewell ushered Eyga Williamson to a podium to read her essay aloud, she asked the bright student how she felt about this special evening. “I feel like a celebrity!” the girl replied.

“Our Nation’s Generations” exhibit will run through March 6. For more information, visit

Snow-Melting Latin Rhythms Engage WAC Crowd

Snow-Melting Latin Rhythms Engage WAC Crowd:
Afro Cuban jazz great Arturo O’Farrill provides hands-on demo
(Ran as a full page in Westport News 2/4)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Westport, CT – Though recent heavy snowfalls had cooled Westport’s spirits, the hot Latin rhythms that Arturo O’Farrill banged out on a recent Sunday afternoon did much to reignite them.

The pianist, composer, educator and winner of the 2003 Latin Jazz USA Outstanding Achievement Award made an appearance at the Westport Arts Center at 51 Riverside Avenue Jan. 30 to present “Bang on a Drum: Latin Rhythms for Kids” program. The presentation was an introduction for children and their families to Latin rhythms and beats, featuring hands-on demonstrations and education.

“I thought this season we would do world music styles and that it would be great for the community to hear one of the world’s greatest Afro Cuban jazz musicians,” said Brian Torff, Westport Arts Center’s artistic director for jazz. “We always do at least one educational program a year. It’s important to introduce children to the profound value of music to our lives.”

Torff and O’Farrill have a long-standing connection. “I’m a bass player and have performed with Arturo,” said Torff. “We’ve known each other at least 10 years. We spoke about this a year ago and he was very enthusiastic about providing music education.”

To that regard, O’Farrill said, “I founded a non-profit called the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance, which is dead serious about music education. We have residencies in New York City public schools where we actually give students instruments and small group instruction. We send master musicians into the field to teach them how to play. The kids may not realize they’re working with internationally famous musicians. Performing is teaching and teaching is living, and without it you’re winging it.”

O’Farrill has also served on the faculty at S.U.N.Y. Purchase and the University of Massachusetts and has taught everyone from nursery school students to doctoral candidates.

As a performer, Mexican-born, New York City bred O’Farrill created the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra at Lincoln Center and produced a debut album, “Una Noche Inolvidable”, which earned a 2006 Grammy Award. A follow-up album with the Orchestra, “Song for Chico”, earned a 2008 Grammy for Best Latin Jazz Album.

Adults and children alike were excited to be in O’Farrill’s company. “There aren’t many live music experiences that you can expose children to that are age appropriate,” said Norwalk resident Susan Blazer, attending with grandson Logan, 4.

Westonite Candace Halpern, onsite with her husband Jeff and son Alexander, 6, said Westport friends, who knew that Alex is very interested in music, invited them. “He’s been studying the piano for a year and a half. I love the up-close, personal and interactive nature of this event.”

Employing a host of percussion tools including metal shakers, clave sticks, congas, guiros, fuche cabasas, sticks and beaters, O’Farrill engaged the crowd with both his personable style but also a step-by-step educational approach.

“Pretend you’re in Puerto Rico and it’s 90 degrees outside and you’ve got your toes in the sand,” the performer said, demonstrating how to strike a conga with both the fleshy part and heel of his hand. “Open, heel, toe, snap,” he called out. Youngsters in the group mimicked his actions.

“Let’s move our bodies,” O’Farrill added, introducing movement to complement the rhythms. “You’ve got to have fun.”

With the audience’s collaboration, O’Farrill gradually built what he called a “Mambo Lasagna” comprised of instruments, sounds and clapping he termed “ingredients”. It was a hot meal to be sure that sated the appetite of attendees, smiles spreading across their faces.