Creating Art From Tragedy in Course on Genocide

OnLion Staff: Laurel Blaske
For senior Tep Seth's final art project for the Holocaust and the History of Genocide class, she found her voice in the form of a tree.
For senior Tep Seth’s final art project for the Holocaust and the History of Genocide class, she found her voice in the form of a tree. Her drawing shows a tree with its branches full of leaves and its roots sunk deep into a sea of the flags of countries all over the world. A few leaves are falling from the tree, each representing a genocide. According to Tep, the genocide leaves falling symbolizes the tree letting go of the “poison” before it can spread.

Mr. Randolph, who has taught the class for over 20 years at Lovett and at other schools, avoids the typical history class lecture-test model in favor of reading, writing, reflection, and discussion. “The assumption is that a test reflects mastery,” Mr. Randolph said. “My goal isn’t mastery. You can’t master things like this.”

The semester-long course features an in-depth study of the Holocaust and then goes on to cover other 20th century genocides such as Rwanda, Armenia, and Cambodia.

The class draws to a close with a final project. The instructions are simple: Say something. Students can express their thoughts and feelings on anything they learned in the class in whatever medium speaks to them.

Many of the projects made by students in the class’s latest iteration were on display in an exhibit arranged by Amy Story. The exhibit featured visual art, poetry, collages, and iMovies.

Tep’s monochromatic “tree of life” has the yin and yang symbol at its center to show the light and darkness in the world. “The message I wanted to send is there is still peace in the world,” she explained.

At first, learning about the tragedy of genocide left Tep feeling hopeless, but she channeled her frustration and found hope that spreading awareness can prevent future discrimination from escalating into genocide. “There’s not much I can do,” she said. “But if there’s one thing I can do, I can spread awareness. If we work as citizens of the world, we can do something about [genocide] before it’s too late.”

Mr. Randolph describes Tep’s piece as a marvelous interpretation of the project. “I think she was trying to make a statement that was very specific but it’s also universal,” he said. “I’m not sure anybody understood the duality of that like Tep did.”

Avery Newton’s painting is significantly less optimistic. At first glance, it appears to be a canvas topped only with a black box and the word “again” written twice, overlapping in the shape of an X. However, the supposed box is actually death counts, the names of groups discriminated against, and killing methods from 20th century genocides. Layered on top of these facts are the words “never again.”

Never again is a phrase often found right alongside information about the Holocaust and many genocides. Avery painted the X saying again to visually represent the idea of never again, but her message is again and again. “I feel like the government is basically taking all the facts about genocide, putting them in a compact area, and plastering over them with “never again,” effectively making them happen again and again,” she wrote. “The government is making it seem like all genocides are the same and that there are not individuals being killed, which is not the case.”

Mr. Randolph brought up this somewhat faulty concept of “never again” in the class. “What does it mean when it’s never again and again and again and again?” he asked students. He sees Avery’s frustration on this topic in her artwork.

Avery’s hope is that her painting can speak to those who view it, so they can understand that every genocide is a different story. In her words, 50 million stories cannot be plastered over with two words.

Haley Bulvin took on the project with a different approach. Hayley combined found poems she had written in the class to create Silent Night, a poignant video that tells the story of a survivor of genocide. She took inspiration from videos on YouTube where instead of speaking, words are written on sheets of paper and held up one at a time.

As Mr. Randolph explained it, this stripped-down presentation keeps the focus on the words themselves. “She kept a flat, emotionless face because she wanted the words to do the talking,” he said. “Whatever punch the words have isn’t from the presentation; it’s from the strength of the words.”

A few words, however, earned a little more attention. Haley outlined words she found to be detrimental in red.

As for what she wanted to say, Haley’s goal was to raise awareness in a way that would resonate with people. “I wanted to do something that you wouldn't just look at. I wanted something that made you feel something,” she said.

After 25 years of teaching the Holocaust and the History of Genocide class, Mr. Randolph has seen a wide variety of final projects. Although countless students have transformed their thoughts into deep, symbolic visuals, he finds that every project is unique. “As soon as I think there’s nothing else new, someone comes up with something I never thought of,” he said. “I learn from my students all the time.”

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