"I have noticed that there is a big diversity between all of y'all," reads Melissa's message on a Web forum, "and I guess that you have noticed there ain't one with us. You probably also noticed that we type using words like 'y'all' and 'ain't.' I am not gonna speak for everyone else but I know I talk like that."
The "we" in this message are fifteen 9th through 12th graders in the small farming town of Holcomb, Mo. The "y'all" are their new online colleagues -- 16 New York City high schoolers. Separated by more than 1,000 miles, the students are collaborating in cyberspace to create a mural in real space that celebrates the strengths of their two very different communities.
The project began when David Loewenstein, a muralist and community arts organizer based in Lawrence, Kan., and I, an assistant professor at Baruch College in New York City, renewed our acquaintance. As classmates at Grinnell College in Iowa a decade before, we had shared a commitment to social justice. Now we began exploring how new technologies could enable students from distant parts of the United States to collaborate on a piece of public art -- and come to understand each other better in the process.
We developed a curriculum divided into three stages: research, design and painting. The research phase required students to contemplate themselves and each other. They had to think critically about how the media portrays residents of their regions and how they want to portray themselves. Their first exchanges would be through "ideas" rather than the visual and auditory cues of faces and accents, which can limit our abilities to connect.
Given the magnitude of the project, David and I felt it best to work in schools where we had prior experiences. He had worked on a mural with Holcomb High School, and I had worked on technology projects with Baruch College Campus High School. Students applied to the mural team by writing essays about their desire to participate and their ability to commit the necessary time. In September 1999, with grants from Grinnell College and Kansas City Young Audiences, we launched the project with the 31 students and key teachers at both sites.
Imagining Each Other
For the work in progress, we used a restricted-access Web site based in Blackboard distance-learning software. The students' first contact came through an on-line discussion forum where they exchanged their preconceptions about one another through artwork. The Holcomb students described their New York City peers, and vice versa using both images and words. Then they challenged these perceptions by teaching their peers about the actual geography, economy, history, cultures and values of their communities. For example, a New York student drew a picture representing the various religious holidays celebrated in the city, while a Holcomb student drew a horse pulling a tractor to show how farming techniques had changed over time in the region.
At each school, participants held critique sessions to decide collectively which images best represented their views. In this process, the students uploaded digital photographs of their original artwork or linked images they found on the Internet and posted them to the Web site with messages explaining their relevance. During this entire process, they did not know what their counterparts looked like.
After months of collaborative learning, the students took their communication a step further by creating and exchanging online self-portraits that incorporated photography, drawing and collage. These visual statements included not just their faces but their interests, cultural backgrounds and future aspirations. Members of both groups agreed that the lengthy research phase had helped them become two parts of one team.
Now they were ready and eager to begin the design process. At each site, students combined more than 100 collected electronic images and, using pastels, created drafts of potential designs for the mural. Each group sent three drafts to David, who integrated the imagery into a seamless whole that expressed the students' similarities and differences, while also reflecting the collaboration process.
David followed three rules: He could change the size or location of an image or repeat an image, but he could not add anything new. Once the students saw the combined design, they critiqued it and negotiated various changes via the Internet.
The final design depicts an urban scene on one side and a rural scene on the other, with various images exchanged between the two contexts. On the rural side, farmland becomes a field of many flags, representing the nationalities of the participating students. On the other side, the night sky becomes cyberspace where images from rural Missouri float alongside the binary code representing the transmission of digital imagery. In the center of the mural is a "traxi," invented and named by the students, in which two worlds come together through the fusion of a tractor and a taxi. A large magnifying glass on each side highlights portraits of each participating student.
Portraying Each Other
Over the next three months, students used acrylic paints to transfer the design for the 8' by 35' mural onto 10 birchwood panels, five in Holcomb and five in New York. David and I thought that having the New York students paint the more rural half of the mural while their Missouri peers painted the more urban side would enhance the learning experience. Some students balked at this idea, and one comment -- "They're painting our side" -- led to a discussion on the importance of seeing the mural as a whole.
Once the students began painting, their resistance faded. They grew attached to each other's imagery and shared their progress through digital photos posted to our Web site. They critiqued their collaborators' work and reviewed colors and placement of images to make sure the center panels would match.
In April 2000, we transported the Holcomb panels by truck freight to New York City. Our mural, titled "Counterparts," finally came together at Baruch College's library. And, after seven months of collaboration in cyberspace, the students at last got to meet in person. Their encounter was magical, and they embraced each other like old friends. Their bond strengthened over the next few days as they visited sites around the city together. After the opening, the mural traveled to Grinnell College and then to Holcomb, where all the students from both sites assembled again for a celebration.
Two students, Reneé from Holcomb and Konstantin from New York, presented a speech together for the New York opening. Their observations summed up the project well: "From the people we've met to the cultures we've learned to the friends we've made, this project has helped us grow both as people and as individuals. It has brought us together both on a physical, as well as an emotional, plane. It has created a bond between 31 completely different individual personalities … a bond that will last a lifetime!"
To see The Mural Project in progress, visit www.baruch.cuny.edu/spa/community/mural. This project was made possible through grants from Grinnell College, Kansas City Young Audiences, Inc., and support from Baruch College, Holcomb R-III School District, and New York City Community School District 2.
As a member of the mural team, I learned how invaluable it is to transcend the restrictive bounds of stereotyping. I imagined Holcomb students to be limited in their perspective on the world and bored with the rural life. I learned that they imagined us to be snobby and materialistic. We challenged these stereotypes by examining their origins and concluded that most of them came from the media. It was important for us to open our minds to people's complexity, instead of just relying on superficial representations to form our ideas.
Confronting stereotypes also allowed me to examine myself and how my environment shapes me. For my self-portrait, I had to search deep within to ask "Who am I? What is important to me? And what is important for others to know about me?" I used images to represent my family, friends, Puerto Rican heritage and love for the Beatles.
For example, I drew a picture of myself wearing a Beatles scarf of my own design and looking at an abstract, circular object. The object is mostly red, representing my Latin heritage, but it also includes other colors to portray the backgrounds of my diverse group of friends. I included a book to show my studious side and my belief that all my hard work in school will pay off.
The experience of discovering and representing myself and my new friends gave me a fresh lens for viewing new people I met and helped me overcome reliance on physical appearance and limited information. The process we went through is now part of me, helping me more fairly evaluate all people I encounter.
When we finally met face-to-face, I felt as though our groups had met a million times before. All of our shared passion and commitment connected us with people whom we may never have had the opportunity to know. Together we have formed a new kind of community, one that overcomes distance and welcomes difference.
Stephanie Mendez is a senior at Baruch College Campus High School