Helping college students understand racial justice through art

This fall, 18 freshmen at the University of Wisconsin-Madison enrolled together in a trio of courses surrounding one topic: ‘Citizenship, Democracy and Difference.’ The courses are bundled in what’s known as a First-year Interest Group (FIG).

These first-semester students, together, take a Political Science course focused on citizenship and democracy, a History course on racial justice in America and a Human Ecology course on leadership and civic engagement for social change. As a tight-knit group, the students explore the alarming racial disparities in Madison and across America, with a focus on civic engagement to bring about change.

The students also all read Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy — the common read across the UW-Madison campus this year that has sparked important discussions on race and equity.

On an early November afternoon, Political Science professor Kathy Cramer brought the students to the Memorial Union’s Wheelhouse Studios to explore racial justice through art.

Wheelhouse Studios instructor Ella Williquette introduces the students to the activity, emphasizing the different emotional powers of color.
The students are given one of 20 small pieces of a larger portrait. Without seeing the complete picture, each student must paint their own part on a small canvas.
Some students consider themselves artists. Others haven’t painted since childhood.
Some pieces feature intricate details such as eyes or lips. Other pieces were mostly solid black with brief highlights of color.
Students begin by sketching their image onto the canvas.
The canvases begin to fill with color.
While focused on the task at hand, conversation also flows freely among the group of students who have gotten to know each other well over the last two months.
Professor Kathy Cramer works alongside her students.
After 45 minutes, canvases fill with shapes and colors.
Ella Williquette and Wheelhouse Studios Director Jay Ekleberry (far right, back facing camera) deliver final instructions to the students as time winds down.
Students begin assembling their individual canvases together.
Students gather, eagerly awaiting the final picture as the last pieces are placed.
Only now are the students shown the original picture — remarkably close to their completed portrait.
The students gather to reflect on the project through the lens of racial and social justice work. Students talk about the need for collaboration and the power of many over one. Other students explain how they felt their piece of the portrait seemed insignificant, alone. But now they realize how important it was to the final, collaborative picture. Just one missing piece would have left an incomplete portrait. Instructors explain how important these same principles are to racial and social justice.
The final portrait — the work of 20 individuals — shows how every contribution matters to accomplish a complete goal.