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'The Big Letting Go Lesson': How The Pandemic Derailed A High School Art Project

Compilation photographer Sarah Brodsky model Delika Dutov zines.png
Courtesy of Sarah Brodsky and Delika Dutov
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WLRN Photo Edit
Delika Dutov wearing a blindfold made of stretched cotton as part of a zine making project.

"There was no closure, really — the word we use for all kinds of big life events. There was no closure."

2020 was a year full of unfinished business.

Of course, there was a tragic loss of life. There were smaller losses, too: A wedding, a family vacation, a graduation — canceled, or postponed, because of COVID-19.

That lack of closure was especially palpable in schools, which sat empty for months. At Dr. Michael M. Krop Senior High School near Aventura, an AP Photography class started a special zine making project — and never got the chance to finish.

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Jessica Bakeman/WLRN
A group of high school students attend a workshop on zine making at Florida International University's Wolfsonian Museum on Nov. 1, 2019.

'SAD HAPPINESS'

It was a field trip day, back when field trips were still a thing.

Some in the group of Miami-Dade County high school students brought their lunches out to South Beach. They joked about tracking sand into Florida International University’s Wolfsonian Museum when they returned for the afternoon workshop on making zines.

The self-published print works are perhaps best known as the medium of 1970s punk rockers and 1990s feminists. But on this day in November 2019, they became a vehicle for teenage expression.

A colorful assortment of materials — stickers, markers, grids, plastic string, foam letters — beckoned from a table at the front of the room. Zoe Welch, the Wolfsonian’s education manager, explained the supplies were up for grabs — as long as students were careful not to be wasteful.

“If you're using different pens, you can do the conceal/reveal, by having colors that jive with the color of your [cellophane] and don’t,” Welch said, demonstrating how layering crinkly transparent sheets over white paper can camouflage words or designs and offer the reader a delayed surprise.

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Jessica Bakeman/WLRN
Zoe Welch, education manager for the Wolfsonian Museum, leads a zine making workshop for high school students on Nov. 1, 2019.

Before long, students were snipping letters and images out of magazines, sketching out their ideas on paper tablecloths, and chatting excitedly about the topics they would tackle.

One student folded a piece of paper several times, so it would take readers a while to open his zine — and discover the irony of its subject: time management.

Since 2016, Welch has overseen the production of nearly 1,000 student zines, many of which are preserved in the museum’s searchable online archive.

Welch said the free "Zines for progress" program is "a natural fit" for the museum, which is dedicated to "the art of persuasion." Students draw inspiration for their zines from examples of propaganda in the museum's collections.

“Kids need to understand how meaning is made,” Welch said then. “They’re about to make meaning in the zines, and the best way to make meaning is to learn how it’s made.”

Students work in small groups creating zines that explore topics important to them — often social justice issues like gun violence in schools, racial profiling and climate change.

The months-long project also includes multiple classroom visits, during which Welch monitors the students’ progress. It culminates with a public display at multiple teen zine fairs, and then the larger Miami Zine Fair, held at the Little Haiti Cultural Center.

The pedagogical value of Welch’s zines project, and others like it, became the subject of a recent FIU doctoral student’s dissertation.

Diana Levy finished her Ph.D. in language and literacy with a qualitative study that included in-depth interviews with Welch and eight other educators who use zines as a teaching tool. One of her interviewees called zines “the ultimate art and literacy combo plate.”

“I can't think of a better embodiment of literacy,” Levy said. Zine making "uses everything. It uses research and uses writing. It uses art, uses poetry. It uses design.”

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Jessica Bakeman/WLRN
Miami-Dade high school students tour the Wolfsonian Museum on Nov. 1, 2019, stopping to take pictures of "The Strange Couple," a 1934 painting by German artist Anja Decker.

During the zine making workshop at the Wolfsonian, Fransheska Guerra fashioned flowers out of cellophane. They were placeholders for the real, dried flowers she hoped to secure inside the cover of an old photo album that would hold her zine on “the essence of nostalgia.” She was 16 then, a junior studying AP Photography at Krop Senior High.

“It's such a peculiar feeling, and it's such an unexpected feeling, as well,” Guerra said, explaining her topic choice. “It's so hard to describe, because it's like sad happiness.”

Mark Pinnock and Scott Ledain’s zine was called “don’t hate, create” and encouraged readers to channel anger into art instead of violence. Both 17 at the time, Pinnock was a junior, and Ledain, a senior, at Krop.

“There's other ways to show your emotions — other than picking up a gun and shooting somebody or raising your fist against somebody, you know?” Pinnock said. “There's other ways to …”

“ … deal with the pain?” his zine partner, Ledain, chimed in.

“Deal with the pain,” Pinnock said. “Yeah.”

“Even this week, I had a really bad day,” Ledain offered. “My best friend … saw that I was going through a lot of stuff. And he's like, ‘What do you want to do?’

“I'm like, ‘I don’t know, man. I just want to take some pictures,’” Ledain continued. “So I'm taking pictures, and the pictures were kind of weird. They were distorted, kind of dark. … But at the end of that process, … they were bright. They were full of hope.”

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Jessica Bakeman
AP Photography teacher Mirtha Funcia poses at her desk at Krop Senior High on Feb. 19, 2020.

'NOW I KNOW I'M NOT ALONE'

A few months later, in late February, the AP Photography class at Krop was racing against the clock to finish the project.

For their zines, Pinnock and Ledain ended up doing a series of portraits of classmates. They interviewed the students about times when they felt angry or sad and made art out of those feelings. They planned to cover the images with passages from the interviews printed on transparent paper.

“Their pain gives them so much inspiration, which I find really cool,” Ledain said, explaining what he learned from the interviews. “It shows how they can use what makes them feel like they're useless to actually show their worth.

“That's why I connected with this project so much,” he said. “Now I know I'm not alone completely. All of these people also go through pain and express it through artwork.”

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Jessica Bakeman/WLRN
On Feb. 19, 2020, then-Krop Senior High students Mark Pinnock (right) and Scott Ledain edit portraits they shot of their classmates for their zine called "don't hate, create."

Pinnock clicked through the photos on a laptop, lingering on one whose subject’s eyes were brimming with tears.

“When you look at the picture, you can tell it's telling a story,” Pinnock said. “I want you to feel what that person is feeling at that time.”

“Show their vulnerable side, you feel me?” Ledain added.

“Their vulnerable side, their happy side — things that they never would actually show to a person,” Pinnock said.

“People are very straight faced,” Ledain said. “They don't like to show emotion at all. And this is basically showing that you can be vulnerable, and people won't judge you.”

Meanwhile, Guerra placed QR codes in her zine on “the essence of nostalgia.” Readers would be able to scan the codes with their smartphones and retrieve playlists specifically curated for the experience of flipping through the different sections of the zine: “Toys and butterflies,” “17,” “The places we’ll go” and “You ’n’ I.”

The other members of Guerra’s group were shooting portraits in a closet their teacher had converted into a studio. Sarah Brodsky took the photos of Delika Dutov, who was wearing what looked like a blindfold made of stretched cotton.

“It’s how nostalgia felt when I felt nostalgia,” Dutov explained, “like cotton in my head, or like my head was made out of cotton.”

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Jessica Bakeman
Delika Dutov (left) and Sarah Brodsky (right) stretch cotton balls to create a blindfold-like prop for a portrait shoot at Krop Senior High on Feb. 19, 2020. The students were creating a zine on "the essence of nostalgia."

'IT UNRAVELED'

The first teen zine fair was scheduled for March 13. It never happened.

Instead, that was the day leaders of Miami-Dade County Public Schools and other districts in Florida announced a short-term shift online that ultimately lasted for months.

“Everybody was scrambling,” Welch said. “I texted with a few teachers, spoke on the phone once or twice with a couple of the teachers. But it was mayhem. It just — it unraveled.”

The canceled zine fairs weren’t the final blow. Welch was also unable to return to the students’ classrooms to provide feedback on their zines and hand back the hard copies. Welch still has all 74 of the zines from last year's class. The students never got them back.

“There was no formal end to it. There was no closure, really — the word we use for all kinds of big life events,” Welch said. “There was no closure. And some of those kids have now graduated.

“I think this is the big letting go lesson,” she said.

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Jessica Bakeman
The zine on "the essence of nostalgia" was packaged in old photo albums, complete with family photos from strangers.

It seemed like a relatively small loss at the time, as teachers and students grappled with all of the disruptions the COVID-19 pandemic brought to their lives. But since, from time to time, some of the students have wondered: What ever happened to my zine?

Guerra transferred to a different school in Miami-Dade, where she’s finishing up her senior year with in-person classes. She said she believes her zine “became more relevant after it was made,” in the context of the pandemic.

“In a year or two, the pandemic time is going to be very nostalgic in a sense: All this time where we were just by ourselves, isolated. All this time that was lost — and, for some, it wasn't lost. It was just, like, digested very differently,” Guerra said. “I think it's going to be very interesting to look back on.”

NEW YEAR, NEW ZINES

Welch has been working from home during the pandemic, so she hasn’t had the resources she needs to photograph the last class’ zines and upload them into the museum's digital archive. She hopes to do that eventually.

With a new school year came a new cycle of the project. Like many other school projects, “Zines for progress” has gone virtual, for now — although the participants will continue working with their hands. Welch is sending packages of materials to students so they can make their zines at home and then photograph them and upload them to a digital platform.

"Our aim is for students to produce their own digital zines as well as to contribute to one collective zine ... that captures the zeitgeist of what this past year has meant," Welch said. The group zine will feature one page from each participating student.

While there are downsides to the new format, there are upsides, too, Welch has found. The Wolfsonian has hundreds of thousands of artworks and artifacts, and typically, students get to see very few of them.

Because the kids are not able to tour the museum in person now, they’re being offered access to digital collections they never would have experienced otherwise.

Also, Welch connected with other educators around the country who make zines with their students. One teacher in New York City who works with students who live in supervised group homes raised the possibility of future collaborations.

“All of a sudden, the work that we do here in Miami has massive reach, beyond anything we'd be able to accomplish,” Welch said. “When eventually, someday, we're back in our physical building and working in person again, we will have established ties further beyond the boundaries of the city.”