East St. John High students paint the town

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 18, 2008


Staff Reporter

RESERVE – Looking for the next Rembrandt, Van Gogh or Picasso?

Janine Ward has been looking for the last 20 years right here in the St. John school system.

Ward is a visual arts teacher at East St. John High School where 40 students study with the intensity of professionals in the competitive entry visual arts program.

“They stimulate higher order thinking skills,” said Ward of the students. “We really try to push that with our kids. It starts in the brain first. Your hands don’t just move by chance.”

Students are admitted into the program in their sophomore year after taking a test showing they have the basic skills needed to be a successful artist.

“They have to pass a test,” said Ward. “We actually consider it special education. Anything above or below the norm has to be addressed.”

Ward began the program in a classroom in the Vo-tech building and eventually expanded the art studio into an adjacent unused storage room.

Now, where once decrepit industrial machines gathered dust, students gather together scattering their work across drafting tables and working on large-scale projects such as sculptures.

Ward said most of the equipment in the studio is scavenged, donated or loaned to the program.

“They need to increase the fine arts budget,” said freshman Cameron Johnson, who pointed out the discrepancy in the funding of the football team in comparison to the art program.

“We are proud dumpster divers,” exclaimed teacher Carol Jane Myers as she taught Johnson how to trace an outline with a projector the teachers had taken from the trash and refurbished.

“You know who got famous doing it this way?” Myers asked of Johnson, while standing by the projection on the wall with pencil in hand.

“Georgia O’Keefe,” said Myers.

In the fashion of such professional artists students keep a portfolio that contains their work from the program that they then can then show to colleges.

“Last year out of a class of 10, about eight of them went to college art programs,” said Ward. “Some years I have everyone go to college, some years none.

“I have had them with master’s come back here. I had one come back and got a job in a Catholic school on my recommendation.”

Although the accumulation of a body of work is one of the goals of the program the independent study required in the students senior year is the ultimate test.

“They have a choice to do a sculpture or a mural,” said Ward. “Almost everything you see on this campus is painted by us.”

Indeed, the campus walls throughout the arts and Vo-tech building are filled with the self-portraits of former students, and the campus is decorated throughout with the years and years of work students have put in.

The murals have become such a part of the school that they have spilled over into other schools and the rest of the community.

Ward was honored by Superintendent Michael Coburn in a school board meeting in 2006 for a mural her class painted in Lake Pontchartrain Elementary.

In addition, her students were able to make money on the side when Dupont commissioned them for a job at a building on their campus.

If you are interested in having a mural painted for you, Ward said she can be reached at jward@stjohn.k12.la.us for student recommendations.