At Success Academy HSLA – Brooklyn, visual art classes are more than drawing and painting. When scholars step into their classrooms, they enter a world that pairs technical ability and conceptual understanding.
For Erick Guzman, the visual art and photography teacher at the high school and leader of the Elite Visual Art Club, art is about seeing past your initial observation. It’s learning how to discern a passerby’s facial expressions. It’s using proper vocabulary. Most importantly, art is something thoughtful with long-lasting relevance.
“The higher you get in art, the more intellectual and conceptual it becomes,” Guzman said. “It’s one thing to make artwork, but if you have nothing to say to back it up, you’re not going to impact anybody.”
To ensure they create projects that match these criteria, HSLA–BK scholars are required to write artist statements that fully explain and give context to their artwork. What exactly are they trying to accomplish? Why are they doing it this way?
Guzman aims to build the confidence of their scholars through these artist statements, thereby preparing them for future conversations with potential employers or professors.
“I want the scholars to know that they belong where they end up,” Guzman said. “That they have a right to be where they are.”
Guzman learned to think about art critically while attending Brown University, where they were exposed to a number of different works and compositions that informed their thesis project. Using the influences of Latinx artists, Guzman was able to connect with themself through their art.
Olivia Perkins, a sophomore in Elite Visual Art Club who took Guzman’s class as a freshman, found her own connection through the “Artist as Mentor” project, in which scholars research an artist, present about them, and create a piece inspired by them. Olivia’s artist of choice was Kehinde Wiley, best known for his portraits of people of color.
“I love his art style and the way he brings Renaissance art into his pieces,” Olivia said. “Our different projects have made me get inspired by new things, and I find myself spending more time focusing on completing a piece instead of jumping to a new one.”
For Gabii Mojisola, art means personal development. It means creativity too, as Gabii’s favorite topics have been watercolors and the self-portrait project, but Guzman’s class has opened her eyes to more.
“Art makes me think about maturing mentally and socially,” Gabii said, “how I want to express myself and what type of legacy I’d like to leave behind.”
Classmate Axel-Moise Sawadogo is proudest of how far his technical ability has come while under the tutelage of Guzman. While in the past he was prone to rushing his work and not thinking through details, that has changed.
“I’ve never been good at making things look realistic, but my time in art club this year has taught me how to add depth to things,” Axel said. “Teacher Guzman helped me understand how to create illusion in what we see, which determines how we interpret art.”
Sophomore Layla Nakahashi appreciates the hands-on feedback and teamwork that she receives from Guzman, who challenges her to always do her best. It’s inspired her to do the same with her younger classmates in Art 100.
“Teacher Guzman always says I shouldn’t give up on myself, and it has helped me as a person,” Layla said. “Now I’m able to help freshmen who feel like they want to give up. Teacher Guzman has made me learn that if you challenge yourself constantly, you’ll get better over time.”
Layla added that Guzman not only supports their scholars emotionally but through art techniques as well, such as the best way to use a pencil or brush and how to incorporate the use of a ruler into their work. Whatever it is, Guzman makes sure to go the extra mile to set their scholars up for success.
“There are many different pursuits that you can take to be successful in life,” Guzman said. “I want my scholars to feel confident by the time they get there.”