When Deerfield Academy students returned from Winter Break, many noticed the black—and—white fliers featuring a simple, bold message—“The Fire This Time”—without any explanation.
Director of Inclusion and Community Life Marjorie Young, a member of The Fire This Time management team, hoped the phrase would catalyze conversation. Indeed, speculation and discussion permeated campus.
Soon afterwards, student explanations in a tell—all video on The Deerfield Bulletin revealed that The Fire This Time would open as an art exhibit celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Curated by Angel Abreu ’92, the collection, now up in the Von Auersperg Gallery, features the work of several renowned contemporary artists. Social and restorative justice themes unite the pieces.
Mr. Abreu drew much of his preliminary inspiration from two books—The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander— both of which address race—related social, political and religious issues.
Among the 14 works of art displayed, one may find a few particularly poignant—a Nazi sympathizer with a severely contorted spine, a photograph of a pensive Martin Luther King, and a seemingly ordinary log with piercing amber eyes. Mr. Abreu’s own Spin, a striking whitewashed canvas with slightly discernible headlines, stands alongside them.
After studying philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania and New York University, Mr. Abreu became senior professor at the School of Visual Arts in NYC and devotes his time to his art. When queried about his initial reaction to the project, he stated simply, “I was a little afraid and a little apprehensive [but] I’ve always believed that artwork is a teaching tool, and that’s really my intention with all this.”
When he was only 14, the Museum of Modern Art purchased Mr. Abreu’s work through a collaborative called Kids of Survival (K.O.S), established in 1982 by Abreu’s former teacher, Tim Rollins. The organization seeks to unite artists and at—risk students to produce allegorical art rooted in canonical literature and music.
“[K.O.S.’s] mission is to change lives,” Mr. Abreu remarked. “It all revolves around using art as a tool for transcendence.”
“[The Fire This Time] is also about awareness and consciousness,” Abreu added. “Martin Luther King stood for activism. It doesn’t matter what your race is—MLK was not about that. He was about love, he was about transforming your community, about caring about each other. It’s about changing things one day at a time.”
In an effort to evoke interest, stir conversation and involve the community, student members of the exhibit management team —Chloe So ‘15, Shaun Wang ‘15, Liam Gong ‘16, Rachel Yao ‘16 and Andrea Leng ’15—created a canvas in which they encouraged community members to answer an open—ended question: What is your fire this time? The group then added the board to the display, which debuted on Sunday, January 11.
Mercedes Taylor, an art and language teacher at the Academy, and a core member of the management team, was elated by student involvement and interest, saying that the artists who attended the exhibit’s opening “were so impressed and touched, by the attendance, by the questions and by the warmth of the school. It [is] important to have everyone talking about it. I firmly believe that art doesn’t belong to a group of students who study art. It belongs to everyone.”
Beth Byrne, another central figure who envisioned the exhibit, echoed Mrs. Taylor’s sentiments: “Art can be a catalyst for a lot of positive, motivating, and inspiring conversations—and action. The artists are shown all over the world, and we are so lucky to have some of this work here. It’s thrilling to have that quality of work on campus, and an honor.”
“When the work is so strong, and it connects so beautifully to MLK day and beyond,” Ms. Byrne concluded, “there’s no stopping it.”