Giving Voice to the Voiceless

At the beginning of the fall 2008 semester my colleague Rebecca McMillen, Ph.D., and I scheduled a meeting with a McLane High School art instructor named Marc Patterson. We expected to tell Marc about Fresno Pacific University’s new art major and hear a bit about his approach to art education. 

To our surprise, Marc came to the meeting prepared to introduce us to a massive art installation project that his ArtVenture Academy students had already begun to construct titled Whispers from the Streets. The project was inspired by a photograph in The Fresno Bee depicting a homeless man standing near a freeway overpass. The beautiful design of the photo’s composition caught his eye, but more importantly Patterson saw learning potential for his students. After researching the causes of homelessness, studying photographs of Fresno’s homeless encampments and hearing guest speakers like Kalem Kazarian, author of Tell Me Your Story, a book about Kazarian’s personal experiences of being homeless, students created an art installation that sought to create empathy with those who lived on the streets.

When Marc asked if we would be interested in exhibiting this project on campus at FPU, Rebecca and I immediately said YES! Whispers from the Streets was an opportunity to carry out the Fresno Pacific Idea in ways unique to the visual arts. By telling stories of the homeless in the city of Fresno, the exhibit created empathy with those who are less fortunate, an important aspect of our institutional commitment to be a “Community of Learners.” The paintings, drawings, sculptures and mixed media works illustrated the harsh living conditions, challenges of mental illness and many other factors affecting the lives of Fresno’s homeless population. Some students chose to illustrate their own personal experiences with homelessness, bravely shedding light on just how common this experience is in our community.

The resulting show was exhibited at FPU in the spring of 2009 in McDonald Hall, AIMS Hall and in the Steinert Campus Center. The artworks were created by over 200 McLane High School students with some help from my own Painting II students and Individualized Master’s Degree student Cynthia Chapman (a well-established local artist and homeless advocate). 

Through the creation of more than 60 recycled door panels, a large-scale “shanty gallery” and many hours of work painting, drawing, collaging and constructing, students received a wealth of education. They learned about the practical importance of building with wood. They learned about multiple human perspectives, creating art that tells a different story than their own. They explored the best way to use art materials to tell a memorable story. Lastly, they invited their teachers, family, friends and members of the FPU and Fresno communities to evaluate and respond to their hard work. 

FPU has since partnered with ArtVenture Academy two other times. In February of 2015 a series of woodblocks from Mississippi Freedom Summer 1964 were displayed at Butler Church in conjunction with the music-theater performance piece Of Ebony Embers by Florida-based chamber music/performance group The Core Ensemble. In the spring of 2019 FPU hosted a retrospective of more than 10 years of Marc Patterson and Art Venture student projects throughout the campus. Visitors to campus for February Arthop were immersed in creative installations about civil rights in the 1960s, Japanese incarceration in World War II, foster care, human trafficking, environmental issues and stories of Hmong cultural identity (this last project, Stories of Home, the Southeast Asian Story Project, was exhibited at the White House in 2015). 

Though the topic of “art” can sometimes be associated with overpriced excess and meaningless nihilism, Patterson’s social-justice mindset is well aligned with the FPU Department of Art, Design and Creative Innovation. Our students are encouraged to think about the world from multiple perspectives, creating work that is beautiful, meaningful and righteous.