COLUMBUS — Danielle Smith was surprised by her reaction to the “Speaking Volumes, Transforming Hate” exhibit at the Yellowstone Art Museum.
The Columbus High School senior, along with her classmates, had already watched an introductory slide presentation and they’d already spent several weeks discussing issues of social justice. Yet, until she visited the exhibit in person, she wasn’t convinced that hatred could be transformed into something positive.
“Actually, going there was kind of inspiring,” she said. “It gave me hope that things could be different.”
Of the dozens of pieces on display, she was particularly drawn to “Smoke and Mirrors” by Stephen Glueckert. The artwork depicted, among other things, a white rat eating cheese and a black rat bound by a chain too short to allow it to reach the morsel.
“It made me think,” Smith said, “how it would be utopia if all hatred were just smoke and mirrors.”
Like Danielle, Kelsey Hall, a sophomore at Columbus High, was moved by the exhibit. She said it opened her eyes to the sadness suffered by those targeted by prejudice. As part of related school activities, she penned a poem inspired by one of the pieces. She was disappointed, however, that some of her peers made light of the unusual works of art.
“If people had looked more into the art and tried to understand it, it might have had more impact on them,” she said.
Smith and Hall were two of more than 400 Stillwater County students who will visit the exhibit at the YAM, thanks to a grant from Humanities Montana and the enthusiasm of Robert Smith (no relation to Danielle), assistant librarian at the Stillwater County Library.
Robert Smith had attended the exhibit’s opening in Helena in January 2008 and vowed to involve local youth when the exhibit arrived in Billings.
“I thought, when this comes to our area, we have to see what we can do about getting the word out to the schools,” he said. “If there’s one student who walks away from this seeing things differently, that’s what this is about.”
His efforts culminated in bringing Katie Knight, curator of the exhibition, to Stillwater County in early March. Through presentations at two county schools and workshops for teachers, she hoped students and staff would be better prepared to formulate their own interpretations.
“Sometimes we’re different appearing and sometimes we’re different thinking,” she said. “But we have an innate sense of social justice.”
Casey Olsen, English teacher at Columbus High, incorporated role playing, reading assignments and online student discussions into his regular curriculum on social justice. The real learning doesn’t take place until students get a chance to interact and respond, he said.
“And writing allows them to do that,” he said.
Yet Olsen was well aware that the students themselves carry more influence with their peers than words from an authority figure.
Hall “is better able to carry the message in a format that might be better accepted,” Olsen said.
Among the cross-curricular studies at Columbus High, students in Mike Moodry’s government class linked the exhibit with an exercise in lawmaking. Columbus High senior Rob Corson, who was especially drawn to the historical aspects of social justice, said his class formed a model legislative body to craft a human rights bill. The debate that took place while writing the bill revealed a range of perspectives among students.
Corson acknowledged that there’s little diversity in the town of 1,800. For the most part, he added, students don’t think about racial differences because they’ve grown up together.
“But you do see it (prejudice),” he said. “Some people don’t even realize they’re doing it.”