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Laid-Off Art Teachers Turn to Their Craft to Express Themselves

Katrina Barge, an artist who was among the 1,000 public schoolteachers laid off last summer, sat up a bit straighter as she described a recent painting. “It’s called ‘Though I’m Broken and Bruised, There’s Hope in This Pain,’ ” she said.

Ms. Barge, 28, and other former Chicago art teachers have returned to creating art as a way of coping with the derailment of their teaching careers. On July 3, Ms. Barge joined six other former art teachers at the Flat Iron Building in Wicker Park for the opening of their show, “Art Teachers: Redefined.”

Equal parts celebration and protest, the Flat Iron exhibit runs through July 30 and is a sampling of a larger show, which runs through July 31 at the First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple, 77 West Washington Street.

“Redefined” is the brainchild of Cezar Simeon, 47, a former first-grade teacher at Lloyd Elementary School who was laid off last summer. Mr. Simeon does not teach art, “but I was really ticked off when I heard about all these art teachers losing their jobs,” he said. “Art isn’t something you can test for, but it teaches kids problem-solving skills.”

When the show opened downtown, Mr. Simeon was contacted by Charlie Rees, the founder of the Flat Iron Artists’ Association, which hosts the building’s First Friday open house each month. “I thought this was a great venue for them to show their art and tell their stories,” Mr. Rees said.

Those stories are told through vivid paintings, tapestries and installations, including a work by Gina Baruch titled “Screwed,” in which a large metal screw has been strategically positioned on the seat of a wooden chair. The artists’ biographies that hang alongside their works read like a cross between job applications and statements of defiance. “She is highly motivated and passionate,” one begins, “and she refuses to go away without a fight.”

Lourdes S. Guerrero, 55, taught art for eight years at Von Steuben High School before losing her job. She became a teacher relatively late in life, after more than 30 years as a professional artist. “I was surprised by how much I loved it,” said Ms. Guerrero, who returned to school for her master’s degree in education.

“Weavings,” a Guerrero work on display at the Flat Iron Building, is a multimedia self-portrait depicting a half-skeleton, half-human figure. She said the exploration of her Mexican heritage, and her disconnection from that part of her history, is a radical departure from her typical work with fiber.

“I was really inspired by my students,” Ms. Guerrero said. “I couldn’t ask the kids to push themselves without doing the same for myself.”

Ms. Guerrero and Ms. Barge have sent dozens of applications to schools outside the Chicago system. Ms. Barge spent the past year working as an aide at Agassiz Elementary in the city.

“I’m a board-certified art teacher with a master’s degree,” she said, “and I’ve been working at a job that only requires an associate’s degree.”

Ms. Barge smiled, but her voice betrayed frustration. “It’s not about the money,” she said. “It’s about the teaching.”

jreaves@chicagonewscoop.org

Chicago Teachers Union