Des Lee Fine Arts Festival packs two days full of unique opportunities for youth

High school students at work during Des Lee festival at UMSL

Partway through the two-day Des Lee Fine Arts Festival on campus last week, UMSL faculty members Jennifer Fisher and Michael Smith (center) discuss a visual art exhibit taking shape inside the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center. Hundreds of St. Louis young people took campus by storm Feb. 7 and 8 alongside UMSL faculty and other contributors to make music and create art. (Photos by August Jennewein)

After skillfully wrapping another piece of light-colored string around one of the textured irises on a poster peppered with eyes, eyelashes and a colorful television test signal, Emma Boschert stepped back from the table to reflect on the day’s work.

She and fellow St. Louis-area high school students Liz Crawley and Mallory Sifford had just 45 minutes left to bring their collaborative art project to fruition inside the spacious Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center lobby. But by this point the three new friends were confident that their initial idea was coming together nicely.

Art gallery poster

Both UMSL faculty and students got involved with the festival, volunteering their talents and expertise. One of them added this poster as a finishing touch to accompany the high school students’ visual art exhibit in the Touhill lobby.

That morning, University of Missouri–St. Louis faculty member Jennifer Fisher had played “The Machine Awakes” aloud and asked them to respond visually to the song – one of the musical numbers to be performed at the Touhill later that evening.

“We’d been talking about doing something with open and closed eyes, because our bodies are huge machines,” Boschert said. “We’re these giant machines that are really complicated, and we awaken every day.”

With the finishing touches on each visual interpretation complete by mid-afternoon, Fisher and several UMSL student volunteers then led the three young women and a handful of their peers in one final task: the quick curation of an art exhibit just outside the main doors to the Touhill’s Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall.

Later on, as crowds arrived for the Des Lee Fine Arts Festival concert put on by high school students from all across St. Louis, the colorful display was there to greet participants and audience members alike.

Gary Brandes conducting a group during the Des Lee Fine Arts Festival

Gary Brandes, chair of the Department of Music, rehearses with high school students leading up to their evening concert Feb. 7.

“So far so good,” concluded Fisher, an assistant teaching professor of art education, near the end of the day. “The kids have been very focused. And they might only share one thing in common, which is their love for the visual arts. Opportunities like today help them see life outside their bubble, and I think at the same time it pushes them to see beyond what they think they are capable of.”

Among the young, high-ability visual artists at work under Fisher’s direction was Eric Miranda, an aspiring animator and senior at Trinity Catholic High School. Miranda’s typical focus is drawing, but he branched out into an exploration of collage during the festival.

“My art teacher told me about this opportunity,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed working around other people working on similar things and sharing similar interests. It’s just a really good experience. I’m glad UMSL allowed us to come here.”

The challenge of creating a piece on the spot that represents or responds in some fashion to “The Machine Awakes” song was especially intriguing.

Jim Henry leading young singers

Jim Henry, director of choral studies at UMSL, leads a festival session as members of Vocal Point, a university a cappella ensemble, lend their voices to the effort as well.

“It brings together two arts that don’t normally correlate,” Miranda said.

One might say the same of the Des Lee Fine Arts Festival itself – particularly the 2017 iteration, which went off without a hitch Feb. 7 and 8.

UMSL’s Michael V. Smith, the E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor of Music Education, led the effort, which this year brought about 900 area young people and their teachers to campus for a day rich with top-notch instruction plus fun interaction and performances.

“This has always been primarily a music festival,” Smith said. “But we have just kind of started to open things up.”

Along with added opportunities for middle school and high school visual arts students including Miranda and Boschert to work with UMSL faculty members throughout the day, the festival featured a special presentation Feb. 7 by a high school theater troupe composed of students from participating Des Lee schools.

Two Des Lee collaborative partners also performed: SpecDrum, led by UMSL’s own Matt Henry, and St. Louis Dancing Classrooms, led by executive director Lauren Wilmore.

UMSL's Jim Richards conducts workshop with the strings

Professor of Music Jim Richards fine-tunes musical selections with the string sections during a workshop the afternoon of Feb. 7.

Fisher noted that while the obvious emphasis of the festival is enrichment for St. Louis youth, it was a great day to be a teacher, too. Whether one’s instructional focus is music, visual arts, dance or theater, such extensive interaction with like-minded colleagues is rare and welcome.

“It can be lonely, and so it’s a nice opportunity to bounce ideas off people,” she said.

Dedicated to enhancing the quality, influence, attitudes and accessibility of fine arts by connecting educators, artists and performers with St. Louis students, the Des Lee Fine Arts Education Collaborative is made up of 16 St. Louis-area arts agencies and 17 St. Louis-area school districts.

Initiatives like the annual – and growing – fine arts festival held at UMSL last week are a key embodiment of what the collaborative, formed in 1996, is all about, Smith said.

“The Des Lee Fine Arts Festival is a wonderful opportunity for students and teachers to come together to make music, create art and to build community,” he added. “The arts are an essential part of being human and, as such, deserve an essential place in all school curriculums. The Des Lee Fine Arts Education Collaborative is thrilled to be able to offer this experience to our community. We hope that efforts such as these will continue to grow both here on campus and in the lives of these teachers and students.”

The UMSL Experience

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