Students’ art hanging in Reece Museum after work with professional


By Jeff Keeling

North Side Elementary student Omari Owens stands in front of his work at the Reece Museum. Photo by Jeff Keeling

North Side Elementary student Omari Owens stands in front of his work at the Reece Museum. Photo by Jeff Keeling

In an art gallery awash in color and form, 9-year-old Omari Owens walks to a yellow-framed work – a mask-like face with bright, bold colors, dichromatic eyes and a broad oval mouth featuring two hues of blue.

Next Tuesday from 5:30-7 p.m., the North Side Elementary School fourth-grader will be back at the Reece Museum on the East Tennessee State University campus for a reception showing off the work that he and nearly 200 other students produced last fall. That was when well-known artist Sammie Nicely, an East Tennessee native who lives in Atlanta, spent several weeks in North Side art teacher Heather Lawson’s classroom as part of a residency through ETSU.

Nicely, who also worked with children at Carver Recreation Center, introduced the second, third and fourth-graders at North Side to their project, “Exuberance: Kids make art about art,” with three works. They included a mixed media piece, a set of masks, and a still life.

“I liked him,” Owens said while visiting the gallery with his mom. “Ms. Lawson’s a good teacher, but I think he wanted a little more detail and for us to take up a little more space in the paper,” he added, recalling Nicely’s encouragement to fill white space as he worked on his piece.

Another piece in the gallery.

Another piece in the gallery.

Lawson said she watched her students, once they became comfortable with Nicely, pick up quickly on his references to artistic concepts such as line, balance, negative space, the size of a picture and the value of color.

“All of those different things work individually to make a piece come together,” Lawson said. “They were able to look to him and he would say, ‘why did you do that?’ and they would explain, ‘well, I want my mask to be angry and that’s why I chose that color.’”

Lawson said Nicely was, “exciting and engaging.

“They had somebody who’s not me sitting with them, discussing their art, asking them to critique the pieces they had made and giving them professional and real world vocabulary to use not only to describe their art but discuss it with someone.”

Nicely was in Johnson City – where he has extended family and has worked with children before – thanks to Martha Alfonso, a Johnson Citian who late last spring approached Roberta Herrin, the director of ETSU’s Center for Appalachian Studies and Services. Alfonso wanted to bring Nicely to ETSU, and offered to raise the necessary funds.

Sammie Nicely

Sammie Nicely

“The reason I wanted him in residence was to involve people who are not normally involved with the Reece,” Alfonso said. “Sammie works very well with children, and I know if we can get these children and their parents to come see their work in a museum setting, it will have a lasting impression.”

Lawson said working with Nicely, who is associated with the “Afrilachian” movement that highlights the contributions of African-Americans in Appalachia, was a great experience for all the students. In addition to working through their project, he told the students what life as an artist can involve.

“This was an opportunity for an artist who was exploring both Appalachian roots but also African-American roots to see how that came together with our students,” Lawson said. “I think we have a fair representation of both of those aspects of this area.”

She and Randy Sanders, the Reece’s interim director, both agreed next Tuesday should be a big day in the students’ lives. Nicely will be back in town, and the artwork will come down later in the week. The public is invited.

“It’s kind of mind blowing that our children have an opportunity to see their original artwork hung in a professional museum,” Lawson said. “It’s been mounted, and it looks like it would look in any other gallery.”

“I’m glad this residency worked out,” added Sanders. “Sammie is a wonderful artist and a wonderful educator, and when those students come into this space and see their artwork on the wall in a museum. I think the impact of that will be something that they’ll never forget.”

The museum is located next to Gilbreath Hall (363 Stout Drive) and is open from 9 a.m to 4:30 p.m. For more information call (423) 439-4392 or visit



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