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Marvell’s marvels

‘One Shot’ project brings out the artist in Delta teens.

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'OUR POOL': One of Pearl Shelby's photos.
  • 'OUR POOL': One of Pearl Shelby's photos.

If you know the Delta, you can picture the demographics: Of its 1,359 residents, nearly 60 percent are black. One in three people live below the poverty line. Race relations have not made much progress here. There are two high schools populated by the kids of Marvell and surrounding communities, one private, one public. You’d have to be from Mars not to guess that the private school is white, the public school black.

So far, pretty predictable.

But when artists from Red Clay Arts of Brooklyn, N.Y., came to town to give teen-agers a shot — “One Shot,” in fact — at putting their lives and thoughts into pictures, the result was, if not surprising, unpredictable. Nine teens eagerly took up digital cameras and camcorders and in two short weeks showed the community what a rich vein of creativity runs through its youth, with surprisingly frank and often terrific photographs and a video they made about about an age-old irritant in Marvell — the fact that there is no public swimming pool. They told it like it is.

For Johnna Huff, her Marvell includes boys with big smiles and gold-capped teeth, tennis shoes sprayed with graffiti and other expressions of style. From her essay, “Ghetto Glistenin”: “Youth in Marvell would give up everything they owned just for their clothes and shoes. In Marvell it’s not about what you have it’s about how you wear it. If you are wearing your clothes and being confident can’t nobody touch you. … You could wear the ugliest stuff, but be matching and considered fly, but when you wear some high priced stuff and aren’t matching, dude you screwed!”

Huff’s work wasn’t what Beatrice Shelby, the long-time head of the Boys, Girls, Adults Community Development Center, expected. She’d envisioned pictures that showed the best of Marvell — like the Center, which tackles problems like teen-age pregnancy, nutrition and parenting. “I would have been like the Chamber of the Commerce, put my best foot forward,” Shelby said. But the One Shot group made art on subjects they cared about, and “they did not try to please anybody.”

On Saturday, Nov. 19, the students’ photos and essays go on exhibit at Restoration Plaza in the Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. With help from a foundation grant, the teen-agers will make the trip to New York for the opening.

Elissa Blount Morehead, the director of Red Clay Arts, the Brooklyn organization that runs the One Shot program, said she and the four teachers who traveled from New York to Marvell were struck by how rural the area was — “It was not much different from Third World places we’ve been,” she said. She said it was both disconcerting to see cotton fields — “it feels like a place from the past” — and “beautiful,” in that the community was small, tight-knit, “and the kids were very respectful.”

The five stayed in a rented house in Marvell or with families and worked with the kids every day, showing them how to use the equipment, sending them out on photography forays and holding critiques of the work at the end of the day. They made a gift of the digital cameras the kids used to the Marvell schools.

The essay requirement scared off some potential participants, Shelby said. Some of the essays by those who did take part betray a struggle with writing, and employ slang that older folks may not understand. Still, their messages aren’t lost. (Their essays are recorded here as written.)

A video produced and directed by the teen-agers includes footage of a local pea farming operation that employs kids and the swimming pool issue — a long-time sore spot in Marvell. It includes painful footage of the Marvell mayor telling a town forum that he was going to open a fire hydrant on Friday nights so kids could cool off. (There are only private pools in Marvell, and they require payment of a membership fee.) At a showing last spring at the Clinton Library, jaws dropped and minds cringed at the scene, and its follow-up, kids joyfully splashing in the gusher. The water wasn’t coming from fire hoses and aimed at them, but the scene was disturbing nevertheless.

The pool theme produced one of the most stunning photographs: A black and white shot of kids submerged in a plastic pool, like fish in a tank, hugging the boundaries of the pool. Pearl Shelby, who shot the picture (and who is Beatrice Shelby’s daughter, a college student who assisted with the One Shot project), defines Marvell in her essay as “a place where our cries for help go unheard.”

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