A week ago I went to see Arts Exit: Saving the Creative Kid at the Hollywood Theatre, a documentary film about the lack of funding for arts education in Portland’s public schools. It comes from first time filmmakers, Emily Sterling and Char Hutson. Three and a half years ago, over a meal at the Screen Door restaurant they decided to make the film. “A bit naively,” suggested Sterling to about a hundred supporters last Sunday night. Had she known the obstacles, the time, and the money it would take, perhaps they wouldn’t have done it, she half joked. But by the end of the film, I decided for myself that they would have still made it. Arts Exit is a powerful demonstration of the two women’s belief in the necessity of arts education. It accomplishes the worthwhile goal of educating a wider audience about the impact of arts in a person’s life while revealing the dents left in a life of little opportunities.
The duo themselves are educators. The opening scene brings them to a familiar place, but puts most of us into that forgotten generic public high school hallway, trailing Alexis, a senior at Benson High School, as she passes out flyers for her new music album. The film doesn’t revolve around Alexis but it returns to her frequently; she is a source of hope, its unintentional comic relief, and somewhat of its mesmerizing celebrity. She smiles throughout, a great big red lipstick white tooth smile.
Sitting with friends in a stair well, she talks about being “on air” at the school’s radio station and her new album coming out. They are all squeezing mayonnaise out of little packets and making white spirals with the stuff on their bagels. She emphatically repeats “on air,” enjoying the sound of it, figuring out how best to say it, like checking out the many angles of a dress in the mirror. At the high school radio station where she has a teen radio show, the instructor says she’s got a great personality for radio, “she likes to talk a lot.” Alexis beams at this somewhat bashfully but without shame. “Talking a lot” doesn’t carry with it a negative connotation, only the useful glimmer of a dream job qualification.
We meet Cece next, playing the piano and singing at Roosevelt High. Cece speaks gravely for a teenager. There is something embattled about her, already tired but still hopeful. She wants to help kids pursue their dreams of music, when she grows up. Kids like her from the ghetto, she says, and that she doesn’t want to do it for “the income. But for the outcome. To change people’s lives.”
A teenage boy testifies that dance class has “allowed me to express who I am and not go home and fight with everybody.” We watch scenes of another high school boy drawing all the attention on stage in his theater program, and he says that without theatre, he “wouldn’t be as outgoing.”
These experiences are anomalies, we learn by a statistic which spreads on the screen in white text like a death toll, In November 2012, only 18% of Portland public school kids had an art teacher. Nationally, 83% of students had an art teacher in 2012. This is what motivated Hutson and Sterling to make the film. Perhaps though, more kids are finding themselves painting and singing in school now as more funding is being designated towards arts access and education in the public school system, due in large part to the Arts Tax, which was approved by voters the same year Hutson and Sterling began.
Hutson and Sterling do a good job of showing the controversial tax, speaking with people who both oppose it and favor it, and the many who have no idea what it is but are still paying it. Responses to the tax are across the board, they are impassioned, quirky, indifferent, dismissive, skeptical, glowing. Jessica Jarratt Miller, executive director of the Creative Advocacy Group and proponent of the tax, is interviewed, beaming as she holds an oversized card covered with kids’ colorful signatures
Following her, we meet a man who loves art, but hates this tax, stating that $70 every year is too much for his household, implying that the head tax ($35 a head) is disproportionate. He sees the arts as an integral part of education, saying it teaches kids about entrepreneurship and who they are, but says that “throwing money at a problem is not the answer.” He does pay the tax, in all pennies which he carries in person. It’s a funny story and I realize he is sitting a few seats down from me in the theater.
A dance teacher from Franklin H.S. explains how expensive and inaccessible private dance classes are outside of school. Another educator says that not every kid is going to be a “writer or a mathematician” and comments on drop-out rates by saying that poor attendance to school stems from a lack of options. Available electives are dominated by gym and technology classes. Arts classes are sought after school or offered at schools like da Vinci High School in northeast Portland, where students must apply and be selected from a lottery to attend. The arts option public school, da Vinci, wasn’t mentioned in the film but I wondered about the schools like that in Portland, how many there are and what the lottery system is like, especially after Hutson and Sterling visited the Vancouver School of Arts and Academics.
Where the documentary succeeds the most is not by defining the arts tax, or showing its impact. Its best moments don’t come from watching students participate in dance classes or hearing little girls say they didn’t know what “tone” or “pitch” was until they go to a drum class. Watching Alexis read and sing songs from her bedroom closet door, which is decorated with heart-shaped song lyric covered notebook pages, isn’t it either.
It is the interviews with Jefferson High School alumni that tie the past and present together to start to tell a story. It is a story-line that Char Hutson wished she could have pursued more had there been the time and resources. The alumni are choreographers, singers and artists. Grainy footage from dance and theater performances over 20 years ago at Jefferson High are illuminated by the declarations of Janelle Yarbrough and Saeed Wright. They recall the era at Jefferson, which is held in high regard as a great time for arts in public schools, wistfully and inexplicably, how people recall heydays, struggling to give the time it’s due praise in mere words.
Janelle was in the dance program back then. She is now a choreographer. To say that she is grateful for the program and the arts would be an understatement. She is emotional in her interview, revealing that dance was not only a means of expression for her teenage self but a kind of survival. At Jefferson, she says, “they knew I wasn’t acting out, but that I was suffering in a different way. I channeled this through art.” With a loaded hesitation, she says of being on stage, it is a “place of peace.” Saeeda Wright, a singer and graduate of Jefferson, asks,
How can you teach history without music? The arts? Not show us how to express what is happening in our time? Anything that has ever happened in life is chronicled by music.
There is a lot to think about with Arts Exit: Saving the Creative Kid. You can begin to consider all these things during the film’s illustrated scenes of a young girl, which breaks up the interviews and weaves the documentary together in a beautifully musical and artistic story-line. It’s an imagination projected on the screen and takes the whole movie to unfold. The girl is a creative kid who has a hard time focusing, her world is a minimal black and white drawing until she starts to fill it in with color after seeing Van Gogh’s Starry Night. The blue and yellow swirls of the painting’s sky start to flicker and reflect in her eyes a wild river of ideas rushing through her mind. It is just the beginning for her, the inspiration has been planted. The only thing left is to give her the space, the paintbrush, and the teacher who will help her develop this talent.