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Life Pieces to Masterpieces Exhibit

Gutman Library exhibit showcases works of DC-based artistic and emotional education program.


May 30, 2014—Throughout April, the Gutman Library’s first-floor gallery space was home to a collection of collaboratively created works by underprivileged African American youths. The “Life Pieces to Masterpieces” exhibit, comprising 29 pieces, touched on subject matters ranging from Cirque du Soleil to absent fathers to Mitt Romney.

The artists, ages 3 to 25, live in some of Washington, DC’s most volatile and poverty-stricken neighborhoods. The works are created as part of a curriculum developed by Life Pieces to Masterpieces, a non-profit whose primary aim is to improve the young men and boys’ emotional awareness and academic and professional achievements through their proprietary art-based character education program.

The works are just a happy byproduct. “I don’t view them as art, I view them as life experiences,” says Selvon Waldron, deputy director of Life Pieces to Masterpieces. “Our young men are very honored to be showing at Harvard.”


two portraits

The Gutman Library gallery hosts rotating exhibits throughout the academic year curated by a student curator.

Obama portrait

“This exhibit is a testament to art’s ability to transform a space,” said Kathryn Robinson, this year’s student curator. “The works really hold their own in the space.” 

long view of Gutman gallery

The gallery is integrated into the Gutman Library’s workspaces. “There are lots of nooks and crannies so even if you don’t have a cohesive collection it’s not jarring to show them all together,” Robinson explained. 

long wall of paintings

The exhibit was planned to coincide with the Repairing the Breach Conference at HGSE, which focused on supporting community engagement by African American men.

The students in the Life Pieces to Masterpieces program create the works collaboratively with each other and with teachers. Each piece starts with reflection and journaling in response to a prompt or question. “Walk a Mile in My Shoes,” above, was prompted by “I have been through hard times, and overcame so many obstacles walking the road of life, and I am still walking.”

closeup detail of painting

Life Pieces to Masterpieces has a proprietary color wheel that dictates what tones are used in a work. The colors correspond to emotions or outcomes in the scene; for example, blue represents giving, yellow language.

apprentices cutting out swatches

Teachers sketch the work, and students cut canvases, recycling bits from previous works. “From an art perspective, it’s really cool, almost like collage, or quilting,” said Robinson.

an apprentice lays out the work

Then students draw the different elements of the work together, learning practical skills like machine sewing as they go.

mother and child

Some of the works from the exhibit will be included in the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is slated to open in 2016.

apprentices with certificates

The high school graduation rate of the program’s participants is 100% and they work with about 200 students a year.