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Art@Work Project Creates Living Color

wall of various art works

Michigan State University’s Residential College in the Arts and Humanities and College of Engineering recently celebrated the unveiling of a wall of artworks created by students, faculty and workers from Peckham, Inc.

Peckham, Inc. is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing vocational training to people in need. They mainly serve newly arrived refugees and people with disabilities. Peckham has a variety of components – it manufactures clothing, offers employment training and even does arts workshops.

The Art@Work project began five years ago when RCAH faculty members Vincent Delgado and Guillermo Delgado kidnapped the dean.

Hooked on Faces
RCAH’s two Delgados had been talking about Peckham for weeks. Vincent Delgado had shown Guillermo Delgado a photograph of the wall and suggested painting a mural. Not long after, the two took a tour of the facilities.

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“The hook for me was the faces behind the sewing machines. They were all kinds of colors I hadn’t seen in a long time, especially being in Michigan. I heard all the different languages blending together. A lot of the women were wearing traditional clothing. And they were all together working,” Guillermo Delgado said.

After that visit, Guillermo Delgado couldn’t stay away. He kept going back to Peckham, sitting in on arts workshops and getting to know the people there.

Still, he didn’t feel like he was the right person to paint the wall.

“I looked at that wall like it would be so wrong of me to try to do something and not even know these folks. How can I do anything here that’s going to be relevant, meaningful if I don’t even know what’s going on here?” Guillermo Delgado said.

So, in order to create something meaningful, Guillermo Delgado and Vincent Delgado decided to expand the network of people involved on the project. First on their list: RCAH dean Stephen Esquith.

“Vincent and I got together and we decided the dean had to hear about this. But we can’t go to him and make an appointment – this is too important. So Vincent says we need to kidnap him, and I’m like ‘What? We just take him?’” Guillermo Delgado said, laughing. “We walked in and said ‘Hey, Steve, we’re kidnapping you.’ And his eyebrow goes up like what? And we said ‘You’ve got to get your stuff, let’s go, we’re going to Peckham.”

Learning About Art, Life
And the wheels were set in motion. Together with Peckham, the three RCAH faculty members got to work figuring out how to get a class together, how to find funding and, perhaps most importantly, what to do with the wall.

“For a long time, we weren’t sure what the wall was going to look like, but that was the part that motivated everybody. This is a problem to be solved, a real-world issue we can handle. And we just did it,” Guillermo Delgado said.

MSU’s College of Engineering got involved when the team was trying to figure how to decorate the wall. The wall was just so huge it was hard to figure out something feasible.

Eventually, they decided they would hang individual canvases in a huge art installation. The project caught the attention of MSU’s Office of Service Learning and MSU Federal Credit Union.

“I was just amazed by how it was growing and growing,” Delgado said.

Another challenge was experience. The experiences of the MSU students and the experiences of the people at Peckham were vastly different. To add to that, Guillermo Delgado gave his students a few crash-course lessons on painting, but they were far from experts.

“Imagine you sitting down with someone from a war torn country, and that woman is there and she had the courage to sign up to paint to tell her story, and you don’t know much about painting,” Guillermo Delgado said.

But the team turned a potential negative into a positive. The RCAH students sat down alongside the people at Peckham, and together, they learned about a lot more than painting.

Changing Perspective
“Art is an equalizer. Anybody can do art, and when you truly understand what it means to create, you see everybody can do it,” Peckham’s Art Program Director Emily Chase said. “I want students to take the class and leave with their minds open about people who are different than them. There’s not a right or wrong way to be, you can just be different.”

RCAH senior Sarah Fagerman has been working with Peckham since she took Guillermo Delgado’s arts workshop in 2012. The class inspired her to change her additional major from policy to studio art.

Fagerman said she always knew she wanted to help make a change in the world. “It was always my impression that the way you change things was through policy,” she said. “But through that class and working with the people at Peckham and seeing what amazing things can happen when you are next to someone making something, that was really that ‘aha moment’ for me. I was like, wow, I can still affect change and pursue my interests but through art.”

– RCAH student Kelsey Block. Photos by RCAH student Ian Siporin.

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