In Art/Act: Youth, Berkeley High School students showcase environmental-themed art at the Brower Center

Elle McDougald/Courtesy

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Staying true to its name, the exhibition “Art/Act: Youth” at the David Brower Center in Downtown Berkeley celebrates the young, showcasing high-school-aged artists and their personal connection to and relationship with the environment.

The exhibition features students of Kimberley D’Adamo Green from Berkeley High School and the culmination of their innovative yearlong or multi-year interdisciplinary research and arts program. All the work of junior and senior high-school students, the gallery pieces represent each student’s immersion in a topic of their choice.

A section at the front of the gallery includes a video featuring Green and multiple students describing the pedagogy and methods behind the ambitious art project. She reveals that the curriculum was, in part, designed and molded by her students, who attest to the value behind not only drawing pictures, but also understanding and having a full picture of the ideas behind their own art. A large part of the research process involved creating a workbook that combines design with the knowledge students gain across disciplines such as history, physics, architecture and literature.

BHS student Maria Fong’s entire workbook is on display for visitors to peruse through. Many of her pages include illustrations that seem to be direct inspirations for her art and others that are composed of carefully organized and diagrammed facts instead. Though hers is the only full workbook on display, there are samples and pages of other students’ drawings and research. Seeing the contrasts between how each student chooses to organize and convey their ideas, it’s clear that the workbook comes to represent each student’s personal identity and style.

Perhaps as a result of working so closely together and sharing critiques and ideas for an entire year, there are multiple common threads interlinking pieces across different artists in the gallery, creating a really cohesive gallery as a whole.

One prominent example is a pervasive darkness that seems to be present through the works. We see a stunning mixed-media piece by Sophie Maras-Gillet that seems to be honeycomb, but with a certain ominous element created by the large black globular shapes in the center of the canvas. Among the bright yellow and oranges of a beehive, there’s a black, oily mass spreading through the piece, almost evoking a visceral sort of disgust.

The darkness directly complements Desiree Minkler’s more realistic drawings of natural landscape scenes on the opposite wall of the gallery. She uses beautiful blues and greens in the outlining of mountains, trees and lakes, but the corners of each of the landscape scenes are invaded by the same dripping black paint.

A common theme throughout the gallery seems to be this anxiety about the future of the environment, whether it’s explored through a direct depiction of environmental deterioration or through a more personal lens.

Many students took the route of exploring the relationship of the environment to their own identity. A standout is certainly Elle McDougald’s portrait of a girl using red thread on a background of maps. The theme of holding pieces of a map together by thread appears again in Marli Anglim’s work, conveying a sense of the delicacy of the connections between places in the world and ourselves.

Hector Muñoz-Guzmán’s sprawling panels also take this personal and community approach to the environment. His piece, “Greening the Ghetto,” depicts a violence- and poverty-stricken community in the left half and the same community, but much happier and greener, on the right. The piece evolved through his passion for bringing more exposure of the daily lives in such communities.

The students display a creativity and maturity that we tend not to associate with high school students, especially in our school systems that increasingly place less importance on the arts. The range of mediums, sizes and styles the artists chose to express themselves with is incredible — from creating large-form collages to attaching sculpted hands to a canvas as if reaching out to the viewer, which adds a three-dimensional element to the painting.

Of particular note is Orr Goldberg’s “Freedom Birds,” which depicts multiple birds lying down, weighted down by coins on their wings, as well as a single bird that breaks free and is flying. He combines elements of digital art, using Photoshop on the pictures of the birds that he glues to the canvas as well as attaching actual coins to the piece.

“Art/Act: Youth” is not simply a high-school art showcase. It represents the emotions, fears and connections today’s youth have to the environment and the current state of the world. The carefully thought-out and researched artwork that the students managed to put together creates a genuinely impactful exhibition that ends up being a perfect fit within the Brower Center’s mission — to provide galleries and workshop series that represent the intersection of environmentalism and art.

“Art/Act: Youth” is open until Sept. 15 at the David Brower Center in Downtown Berkeley, where there will be a free closing reception with many of the artists.

Contact Lynn Zhou at [email protected].