Kendall student’s painting raises questions of race

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A painting that has popped up in downtown Grand Rapids is opening up conversations about race.

The painting features 18 third-graders. In it, six black students are wearing orange prison jumpsuits.

Some people who spoke with 24 Hour News 8 believe the painting perpetuates racial stereotypes.

“It just probably wasn’t the most responsible painting to put for people to see without any type of context,” Grand Rapids resident Cory Ward said.

The piece, titled “Public School Complex,” is part of an art show put on by Kendall College of Art and Design graduate students. Rosie Lee is the artist.

“It’s definitely not for shock value,” he said.

Lee, who uses his beloved grandmother’s name for his artwork, explained the piece was inspired by a photo in New York Magazine that shows a class photo of children separated by race.

“When I saw the picture, I was kind of perplexed,” Lee said.

The New York Magazine article notes that the kids in the photo are all models, but the report was about a New York elementary school that divides many of its classes into groups by race for conversations about identity.

Lee saw the photo and ran with it.

“I thought to put the black students, the African-American students, in these prison, vibrant, florescent orange jumpsuits to address the school-to-prison pipeline and to kind of address those issues that deal with inequality, access (and) resources,” he said.

Cory Ward, a longtime Grand Rapidian who has experience working with troubled students, caught wind of the piece on Facebook. He told 24 Hour News 8 he understands the message of the school-to-prison pipeline, but doesn’t believe the painting fulfills its full potential.

“I don’t think it needs to come down. I just think it needs context because of the society that we live in,” Ward said. “Open interpretation is sometimes very, very dangerous and nothing reveals truth better than context.”

Lee said he’s not planning to add any written explanation for his piece. He said that denial and privilege often scare people from the conversations that he hopes to spark.

“Hopefully, there will be more than a dialogue here,” he said. “Maybe the dialogue will continue to the workplace or continue to the dinner table and then what will happen from that is a plan of action.”

The Kendall graduate student show runs through May 19 at Kendall’s Alluvium Gallery at 89 Ionia Ave. NW. It’s open Wednesday through Friday from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. and Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

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