On Nov. 14, student artists and their families, diplomats from several foreign embassies, representatives of arts and cultural organizations in the D.C. area, and U.S. Department of Education staff celebrated the opening of Yo Soy, Je Suis, I Am, an exhibit of self-portraits by students from around the world. On display until Jan. 4, 2013, this exhibition of works is made possible by a partnership between the Department of Education and the Department of VSA and Accessibility at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. This partnership, which began in 2004, is responsible for an annual international art exhibit at the Department of Education’s headquarters building during International Education Week.
International Education Week is a celebration of international education and exchange worldwide. The U.S. Departments of Education and State work jointly on this initiative. As an official International Education Week event, the art exhibit opening began with a welcome by Maureen McLaughlin, senior advisor to the secretary and director of international affairs at the Department of Education. After viewing the exhibit, McLaughlin reflected on her observations; “Yo Soy, Je Suis, I Am: An Exhibit of Works by Children from Around the World, is a special exhibit to me. Self-portraits allow each of us the opportunity to show who we are, our inner thoughts, dreams, goals and challenges. And I so appreciate the many different ways students have shown us themselves — in a wheel chair, in the future, at night, with friends, with animals, playing sports, and as a rock musician, a superhero, a carpenter, and, of course, an artist.” This welcome set the tone for the event by articulating the individuality, dreams and creativity reflected in the art by students from all over the world. Afterwards, the attendees heard from staff at VSA, the nation’s leading organization for arts education for students with disabilities that was founded more than 35 years ago by Jean Kennedy Smith.
The director of VSA and Accessibility at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Betty Siegel, who has devoted her career to making sure that art is accessible to all students, spoke about the importance of arts in education, especially as it pertains to children with disabilities. A favorite President John F. Kennedy quote amongst the Kennedy Center and VSA staff, according to Siegel, “is the one in which he says (and I’ll paraphrase) that what we, as a country, will be remembered for are our contributions to the human spirit. The artwork we see today — the self-portraits by so many young students with disabilities from around the world— is ample demonstration that arts education is an avenue by which these children voice and assert their personal perspectives and expressions of that human spirit.”
Alongside the remarks, the program included performances by local students with disabilities. Each student had spent months —and in some cases years— preparing for this performance. Tom Sweitzer, a music therapist and director of A Place to Be, helped each of the performers prepare for the event and provided inspirational stories about each of the artists. Amy Stone began with a moving vocal performance of “Part of My World” from “The Little Mermaid.” James Small and Kyle Boardman then recited a poem and a monologue, respectively. Cameron and Brendan Friedrich concluded the program with a vocal performance of “It’s a Small World After All,” during which they urged everyone in the audience to sing along on the last chorus. Throughout the program, Sambia Shivers-Barclay from the International Affairs Office provided simultaneous sign language interpretation for hearing-impaired attendees. The program concluded with the ceremonial ribbon-cutting and the guests then proceeded to the exhibit to meet and congratulate the student artists and view the portraits on display.
Caleb, age 17, from Virginia, attended to celebrate his contribution to the art exhibit. In his self- portrait, ”Caleb Playing Basketball,” he depicts himself in a sport that he regularly participates in. Enjoying a well-deserved moment of fame, Caleb talked with the guests and explained the significance to him of both his art work and wheelchair basketball. The happiness on Caleb’s face that came from being celebrated for his creativity and artistic expression was an inspiration for those who were fortunate enough to meet him. For the next two months, the self-portraits of Caleb and the other 18 young artists from around the globe will continue to inspire those who are able to view them.
Click here to view additional photos from the “Yo Soy, Je Suis, I Am” opening ceremony and ribbon cutting.
Chareese Ross is an information resources specialist in the Office of Communications and Outreach and is on temporary assignment with the Student Art Exhibit Program.