Students create ‘We are Westbrook’ with street artist: A grant brought Pigeon to the school to help celebrate diversity and inclusivity.

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Street artist Pigeon worked with the Westbrook High School Civil Rights Team to create an art installation at the school featuring portraits of students. 

WESTBROOK — Students at Westbrook High School got to be street artists for a day as they celebrated diversity and inclusivity.

Instead of streets, though, the students lined the school hallways with their art. Overseeing the installation was street artist Pigeon, most known for The MAINER Project, which he created last year.

“The whole idea is to acknowledge each other’s differences, and also find commonalities,” Pigeon, whose real name is Orson Horchler, said of the project at the high school. 

Pigeon came to the school March 9 to work with its Civil Rights Team to create the art piece. The project was set up by the Maine Humanities Council, which awarded grants to eight schools so Pigeon could work with them.

The team applied for the grant in October and was chosen in November, according to Darcie Simmons, the Civil Rights Team advisor.

The whole project was finished in a day.

When Pigeon arrived March 9, he put the project in the hands of the 30 team members. He had them pair off and draw portraits of each other, similar to the portraits he drew of immigrants for The MAINER Project.

“He tried to emulate his Mainer project as much as possible,” Simmons said. “The idea was to bring it to schools, especially schools with high immigrant populations. He wanted to make sure all students felt welcomed and accepted here, which is obviously the mission of the Civil Rights Team.”

Pigeon said he had students draw each other because “it’s challenging,” but it also gave them self-confidence.

“I like it because it puts them on edge in a good way,” he said. “They had to be conscious of what they’re doing.”

While some students were uncertain of their artistic ability, Simmons said Pigeon made them feel comfortable. She said some portraits look very realistic, while others are more artistic. Having some of the students not look as recognizable in the portraits has turned out to be positive, Simmons said, because it makes it more relatable for the students who weren’t involved.

“It’s nice because a kid could walk by and say, ‘Oh, that’s me,'” she said. “They could walk by and identify with anyone on the wall.”

The installation is called “(We)stb(r)ook,” which means “We are Westbrook,” and was put up on the wall by Pigeon using a method called wheat pasting. The students’ drawings were coated in a paste and stuck directly to the wall so that the edges of the paper can’t be felt.

The art installation is expected to stay intact for a few years. Pigeon said the portraits show the ethnic and religious differences in the students, which is important “for people who feel invisible.”

“It’s affirming their presence by taking an image of them and gluing it to the wall,” he said. 

The project is on the wall outside the cafeteria, which the students are pleased about, Simmons said. 

“They’re very proud of the work they did,” she said. “They’re very happy to see it there and that everybody sees it every day. They know that in society today it could have gone one of two ways, and people have been very positive and accepting.”

At the end of the day on March 9 there was a school-wide assembly, the first one of the school year, to present the project.

“This was clearly a meeting with purpose,” Westbrook High School Principal Kelli Deveaux said. “It was a very, very powerful experience.”

Students who recently participated in a storytelling camp at the nonprofit writing center The Telling Room in Portland also spoke at the assembly. Nine immigrant students read their personal stories of coming to the U.S.

“It really brought together the whole purpose of our day, which was inclusion and belonging,” Deveaux said.

Earlier in the day Pigeon also shared his own personal experience with the Civil Rights Team. Now a resident of Portland, Pigeon grew up in an inner city in France and moved to Maine when he was 18.

“I talked to them about how I spent most of my life feeling like I didn’t belong and how I made art from that,” he said. “I wanted to show them the journey can be done.”

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or kgardner@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

Street artist Pigeon worked with the Westbrook High School Civil Rights Team to create an art installation at the school featuring portraits of students. 

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