Art and home economics

Esther Neff, CAM teaching artist, exhibits an easy rapport with her Vashon High School students. They enter the classroom and get to work, drawing designs on baseball cap patterns, asking for tape, figuring out the best way to use a glue gun.

Neff has placed a bag of materials on a table in the center of the room: fabric of many colors and patterns, stickers of varied shapes, and even a few that read “happy new year” in glittery text. A box of scissors lie near many spools of different colored thread, along with a collection of clothing buttons.

For this quarter’s art class, Neff has taught the students to sew. A number of them have taken to the task. Dalonte Chatman, who participates in CAM’s New Art in the Neighborhood program, says “My mother taught me how to sew, but not as good as I’m doing in here now.” Another student sews an orange felt eyeball⁠—it’s the day before Halloween⁠—“for my mother. I never sewed before, but I really like it. I like learning new stuff.”

The class has been supplied with white baseball caps, which serve as their individual canvases to design or color as they choose. A line of students stand adjacent to the classroom sink, dyeing the caps magenta, warm blues, pinks, and yellows. One student sews embroidery onto a square of fabric to add to his cap. Another chides, “I don’t wear a hat. This is going to be very difficult for me.” Nobody pays much attention.

An array of caps rest drying on a tray. They contain abstract shapes, letters from the alphabet; one is purple with a yellow brim.

Neff wears a “Will do” t-shirt and responds to every request, query, or complaint with a smile. One student tells Neff that she’s completed an arduous sewing project. Neff’s hand go into the air as she shouts, “Yay!”

After cleaning up the room when the class is done, Neff sits down to talk about her involvement with Vashon. Her most recent experience teaching art in public schools was in New York City. She moved to St. Louis, in part, to co-found MARSH (Materializing and Activating Radical Social Habitus) in Carondelet, a performance and gathering space, with a co-operative diner, kitchen, and garden, as well as apartments for visiting artists in need of temporary, emergency, or transitional housing.

“I love working with student artists,” she says. “I’m an artist and I supplement close to 80 percent of my income with teaching. When I moved here I was interested in getting involved with the city, and Vashon allows me to work in a part of St. Louis I wasn’t familiar with.”

She’s thrilled to hear that students say they enjoy sewing. Her first plan for the class was a group quilting project, but after talking with Tim Jennings, Vashon art instructor, and Miriam Ruiz, CAM School and Programs Manager, she understood the need for varied activities. Fashion became the new focus. Students will be making t-shirts, work with a sewing machine, and accumulate other made materials, felt appliqué of simple shapes and such, which eventually will become a large communal tapestry. Selected hats, t-shirts and the tapestry will be shown at CAM as part of the 2020 spring exhibitions.

She laughs at the incongruity of an art class providing practical life skills. With home economics gone from most school curricula, it is the “impractical” art class where teenagers learn how to sew on a button. “Art is taking on the social services,” Neff affirms.

⁠—Eddie Silva