What makes a community sustainable? High school students in Morrisville are trying to answer that question, through interviews and art that explore the stories of local residents.Pop-art style banners featuring the faces of local community members are hanging in the hallways of Peoples Academy high school. This spring, the banners will be installed on lamp posts around Morrisville for everyone to see. But art teacher Averill McDowell said the banners are already making an impact.
"It’s turning out that everyone can recognize everybody," she said. "And that’s ... been a really cool part of this is: ‘Oh my God, I know that person,’ and ‘They work at, you know, such-and-such place,’ and that was kind of the idea."
The banners are the work of McDowell's advanced and AP art students. Their subjects are business people, civil servants, and other community members who were first interviewed by freshman English students.
"We decided that the freshman ... it was going to be important for them to sort of get to know their community and to share that with the rest of the school," McDowell said.
McDowell and the school’s freshman English teachers have been working with Community Engagement Lab, a nonprofit that connects Vermont schools with teaching artists, to foster community through art. English teacher Moira Donovan said her students aren’t just interviewing people from the community. They’ll also be telling their stories.
"From those interviews, they’re writing the narrative of that," Donovan said. "So, beyond, you know, the questions and answers, they’re turning that into a narrative. Then we are having a visiting artist come, and she is going to help them craft dramatic pieces."
Jennifer Isabell, owner of the Mexican restaurant El Toro, is one of the community members who was interviewed. She was interviewed by a trio of students, including her own son and one of her employees. She told them her story of growing up eating and cooking authentic Mexican food, and bringing that tradition to Vermont.
Isabell was also chosen to be the subject of a banner.
"The students actually went down and took photos of these business owners, which was then put into like a pop art style," McDowell explained. "And the colors of the faces actually relate to the marketing or like the business sign of those business owners."
Cami Lowcock, one of the art students working on the banners, said she's looking forward to this spring, when they'll be hung outside.
"They’re going to be hung on the light poles in town, all around, for anyone to see," she said. "Visitors, people who live in the town. So it’s pretty awesome."
Morristown Community Development Coordinator Tricia Follert is helping to plan a community celebration in May, where freshman English students will perform the dramatized stories of members of their community.
"We want to make this a big thing," said Follert. "This is huge."
Follert says the project is great for local businesses. But business owners like Isabell aren’t the only people getting their faces painted on banners.
"Roland Boivin, he runs our highway department. One of the students asked if they could interview him and if they could paint his on there," she said. "Richard Keith, the chief of our police department. These are all people that make up our community, that are important to create the community that we have here."
Isabell said she’s proud of the work the students are putting into the project.
"It's a very community-minded thing that is bringing everyone together and sort of highlighting what we do well here in Morrisville and that makes me really proud to see happening," she said.
Amy is an award winning journalist who has worked in print and radio in Vermont since 1991. Her first job in professional radio was at WVMX in Stowe, where she worked as News Director and co-host of The Morning Show. She was a VPR contributor from 2006 to 2020.