Middle School Artists Exhibit Their Work in “Celebrating Middle School Success”

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A middle school students artist and her parent at Celebrating Middle School Success.

Self-portraits sketched out in graphite, bold surrealist paintings and carefully constructed sculptures were on display in the lobby of UNC Asheville’s Karpen Hall for a special reception with the artists on Wednesday, July 26. UNC Asheville Chancellor Mary K. Grant, the superintendents of Buncombe County and Asheville City Schools and other leaders and members of the community gathered to admire the work of local artists. This was no ordinary exhibition, however: the artists were all middle school students.

Recent Asheville Middle School graduate Ciel Hadley’s surrealist painting on display featured a flowing-haired mermaid contained in a glass orb, held up against a fiery orange sunset by a pair of outstretched hands.

“I did a lot of brainstorming, and I looked at a lot of images online for inspiration,” Hadley explained. After she settled on painting a mermaid in an orb, she started thinking about color. “I thought, how do I make it Middle school student artist Ciel Hadley. pop?” she said.

Hadley said she hasn’t been studying art very long, but she’s happy with the techniques she’s learned and the skills she has been developing in her classes. “I really like putting work and effort into it, and being able to grow with it and see progress.”

The Celebrating Middle School Success exhibition featured work from 40 students from Asheville Middle School, Clyde A. Erwin Middle School, Enka Middle School and North Buncombe Middle School. The United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County’s Middle School Success initiative works to increase access to and the quality of after-school and summer programs at the middle school level, as a means of increasing high school graduation rates. UNC Asheville faculty and students play active roles in area after-school programs and in-school tutoring. Partners in Middle School Success include Asheville City Schools, Buncombe County Schools, UNC Asheville and its Department of Education and Juntos program.

“It is a privilege to have this partnership with the city schools, with the county schools, with United Way,” Chancellor Grant said at the reception. “We value it, and we are just thrilled to have so many artists with us today, and family members of the artists.”

Chancellor Grant encouraged the student artists to continue in their creative work. “Keep at it,” she told them. “Keep honing those skills, and encouraging those skills, and who knows where it will take you? I’m just so glad it’s taken you to UNC Asheville today.”

Denise Patterson, the new superintendent for Asheville City Schools, offered her encouragement, as well.

“You are wonderful artists, we are excited that we have been able to cultivate your experiences,” she told them. “We want the arts to be in our schools, and I’m so excited to highlight you as artists. You’ve done an amazing job, and I’m really proud of each and every one of you.”

“I’m just jealous!” said Tony Baldwin, superintendent of Buncombe County Schools. “I know, students, you have to be so proud, you have your artwork that’s exhibited at a major university. Wow! That’s awesome.”

Middle school years can be particularly difficult for students, Baldwin said, making programs like the Middle School Success Initiative all the more important.

“We come together around a common goal that all of our students graduate high school ready for college, career and community,” said Laura Elliot, director of the Middle School Success Initiative. “That is work that we come to joyfully and take very seriously.”

Elliot said she was inspired by the work she’d seen in the exhibition."Looking Glass Mermaid" by Ciel Hadley.

“Two words came to mind for me: innovation and courage,” she said. “Our student artists are innovators. Each of them are taking their thoughts and ideas and dreams that are unique and personal to each of them, and being willing and able to share them—that’s courageous.”

The Celebrating Middle School Success exhibition will remain on view through the month of July. For more information, visit the School and Community Outreach Programs and Partnerships website.