RFH Students Face the World in New Art Project

November 16, 2018
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Large black and white portraits of Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School students and teachers hang in the school’s windows as part of a service learning project encouraging participants to think about how they present themselves to the world. The undertaking is part of a global art project called the Inside Out Project begun by a French graffiti artist in 2007. Photo by Elizabeth Wulfhorst

By Elizabeth Wulfhorst |

RUMSON – What kind of picture do you present to the world?

That’s one of the questions two Rumson-Fair Haven High School teachers wanted their students to consider for a service learning project that uses art and language to show how change can occur.

The RFH Inside Out Project is part of a global project created by JR, a French graffiti artist, and based on his large-scale street photos. According to the Inside Out website, the project, started in 2011, encourages the sharing of stories and messages through portraits, transforming personal identity into public works of art.

Kate Okeson, RFH AP Art History teacher, along with AP French Language and Culture teacher Christine Berg, spearheaded the program in conjunction with College Board, the organization that administers the SAT and Advanced Placement courses.

RFH student Ryan Champeau of Rumson helped collect her freshly printed portrait, showing how she chose to pose for the photo to complement her partner as one side of a “fist bumping” pair. Photo by Elizabeth Wulfhorst

“We’re modeling a service learning project, which is how both of our disciplines can impact some sort of learning or change in a community,” explained Okeson. “It’s taking the classroom out into the world and putting it into practice.” The service learning is part of the College Board AP with WE Service program and the goal is to have people who are either at opposite sides or at unknown positions find commonality, said Okeson.

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On Wednesday, Nov. 7, approximately 125 students lined up in small groups behind a large truck parked at the entrance to the school. The truck, manned by representatives of the Inside Out Project, contained a photo booth with digital imaging and processing equipment. Within a minute of each student’s photo being taken, a large 3-foot-by-4-foot black and white portrait rolled out of a slot in the side of the truck.

The posters were then gathered by Okeson and Berg to be hung in the school’s windows and store windows around town the following day.

According to Okeson, the RFH Education Foundation supplied a generous grant, allowing the project to expand from the 30 students in Okeson’s and Berg’s AP classes to more than 100 students and teachers throughout the school.

But it isn’t just about the photos.

“All the students have met in pairs to kind of discuss a couple of questions about how our image does or doesn’t authentically represent who we are,” said Okeson. “How do we choose to display what we’re feeling? What does that mean in terms of other people understanding us or us understanding others? We’re investigating that on a hyper-local level.”

Okeson said the students were randomly paired with somebody outside their social group or grade. “It’s not about being uncomfortable,” she said. “We’re a small enough school that everybody knows each other to a degree, but we wanted it to be less ‘I assume you know all these things because we’re super close.’ ”

“It has also inspired us as teachers to cross the boundaries of our disciplines in order to create a more meaningful learning experience for our students,” said Berg.

Ryan Champeau of Rumson is one of Berg’s French students. “I was immediately interested because she (Berg) said it was a way of showing our emotions to the community,” Ryan said. “We’re showing what we feel inward to the outside world in a way, through photos.”

The art project was spearheaded by RFH art teacher Kate Okeson, left, and French teacher Christine Berg, seen here rolling up the por- traits for safekeeping until they were hung in the school windows. Photo by Elizabeth Wulfhorst

Ryan already knew her partner but said they got to know each other better through planning their poses and how they wanted to look hanging in the school’s windows. “We also had some discussions about what emotions we wanted to display to the community because everyone’s going to see it. We kind of talked about how we want to portray ourselves to the school.”

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After realizing their initial pose of crossed arms wouldn’t work in the photo, they settled on a “fist bump,” each making a fist aimed at the side of their photo. When hung together they appear to be fist bumping.

Bobby Hoye of Fair Haven took a different approach to his portrait, going for an individual look rather than a group one. While talking with his partner they agreed “doing things individually would be more powerful and significant than something as a group in this situation,” he said.

Bobby opted not to smile, making a straight face with no expression for his photo.

“If somebody were to look at the photograph I would hope that they would see something that isn’t just what’s on the outside, so maybe some deeper meaning behind just a flat face and maybe even a bit of mystery into what exactly is going on. So the area for interpretation would allow for multiple points of view on one image,” Bobby explained.

Tallulah Becza-Levitt of Fair Haven and Ryan Pattwell of Rumson also discussed pairing their portraits and decided to recreate two-thirds of the classic three wise monkeys maxim.

“We did hear no evil, speak no evil,” said Tallulah as Ryan mimed covering her mouth and Tallulah covered her ears.

“We wanted to kind of make sure our faces were covered,” she said, “because we didn’t want to just be the spotlight of it.”

And what are they hoping people think or feel when they see the portraits?

“Like hear no evil, speak no evil. Just be kind,” said Ryan.

The Inside Out @RFH Project will hang in the windows of the school at 74 Ridge Road and in stores around town for the next few weeks.

This article was first published in the Nov. 15-21, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.

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