‘Everything just began to click’: Finding a community in film, college and life

By Martha Bennett

Jacob Wishnek paused briefly in front of his computer to take a swig from his cappuccino. Readjusting his chair to get closer to the screen, he studied a scene from his latest short film, “College Kid,” in one of Swain Hall’s editing labs at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“There!” he blurted out, pointing to the screen. “Do you see that? Oh man, I love that.”

In this scene, the main character, Alex, walks through a parking lot while he listens to “Birds Don’t Sing” by the hypnotic-pop band, TV Girl. Syncopated to each cut, the beat of the song dictates every edit, going from shots of Alex’s feet to close-ups of his face.

Snapping his fingers and bobbing his beanie-wearing head, Wishnek smiled.

“This might be one of the things I’m most excited about,” he said. “I just wanna be sure I can get it right.”

He knows, though, as much as his friends do, that he won’t feel like he got it right.

“He’s always on the move, on the go, pushing forward,” cinematographer and friend Michael Sparks said. “He discounts nearly everything he does, which means he doesn’t always take pride or gain confidence from his achievements.”

A dedicated planner and perfectionist, Wishnek’s work ethic has been shaped by crowded sets where he couldn’t hear himself speak, 48-hour deadlines that made him vomit from getting no sleep and pages of rough drafts that would never make it to a read through.

“Perfection is not possible,” actor and friend Calliope George said. “But it is exciting to work alongside someone who shoots for the moon.”

Wishnek’s had a lot of practice shooting for the moon.

At just 22, Wishnek has been involved in over 60 film projects. From sci-fi fantasies to comedies, he’s developed a desire for telling stories and finding different ways to tell them.

But his passion didn’t begin with a typical movie experience. He has Alex Kim, and what might be the worst song of all time, to thank.

The ‘film guy’

Wishnek was 13-years-old when he opened his front door in Charlotte, N.C. to see Kim, his neighbor, knocking.

“Hey, have you seen Rebecca Black’s ‘Friday’?” Kim asked.

A high school student wanting some help, Kim proposed a parody project to Wishnek as an opportunity to get some laughs around school.

“We called it ‘Pi Day’ because March 14, or 3.14159 day,” Wishnek said. “And it kind of became viral.”

Using their parents’ camcorders, Wishnek helped Kim film an off-color music video that generated over 15,000 views on YouTube. The recognition was flattering, but Wishnek noticed something: The video sucked.

Wobbly frames, harsh lighting and odd angles all made Wishnek curious.

“That became my pastime,” he said. “Just researching how to make films. Whether that was with finding new equipment or just learning how to actually shoot things properly to up the production quality.”

There were other learning moments, too. A summer spent at the UNC School of the Arts gave him one of his most important ones.

“Moonrise Kingdom,” a 2012 film by Wes Anderson, was on a laundry list of movies to study for the summer. Known for his stylized form of filmmaking, “Moonrise” checks all the boxes for a typical Anderson film. A consistent color scheme, quirky humor and spanning landscapes paint a charming picture for anyone who sees it.

“I watched it and I was like, ‘Oh, film is art; that’s what this is,’” Wishnek said. “Everything just began to click.”

It wasn’t about cracking jokes — at least most of the time.

It was about finding beauty.

Whether visually on camera or emotionally through script, that’s what made a film engaging. That’s what made them worth making.

So Wishnek began to chase that beauty.

He became the “film guy” at school. Working from project to project, Wishnek always wanted to be busy, whether he was writing, directing or producing. Voted “Most Likely to Win an Oscar” his senior year and accepted into New York University’s prestigious dual business-film degree program, he felt he had paved a road to success.

But New York never happened. It could never happen.

With an annual tuition of over $75,000 and little financial aid, NYU was thrown out of the picture for the son of a network engineer and a business banker. He had to dream smaller, so he looked to the only in-state school he applied to.

“At first I was just trying to put this happy face on about UNC,” Wishnek said. “But deep down I just told myself I knew I would transfer.”

‘It’s okay to need a little more time and exploration, and we should normalize that’

Wishnek had found people with similar interests —even co-founded a student organization for filmmakers — but there was a disconnect. He lacked a community, and Ellie Teller was the person to see he needed one.

A year older and an acquaintance from high school, Teller found Wishnek in one of her classes her sophomore year. She saw a nice kid who always had a nervous smirk on his face, but he seemed lost. He reminded Teller of who she was a year ago.

“When I first came to UNC I had an older brother that was a senior, and spending time with him helped me engage with different communities at UNC,” Teller said. “I wanted to provide similar spaces for him to get out of his comfort zone and start enjoying UNC for all it had to offer.”

She took him to parties, introduced him to the media production major and even gave him his first beer. He may not have been in a big city, or enrolled in a flashy film school, but he began to realize he could belong somewhere. He could belong here.

“Our perceptions of college are that when you get there, everything will fall into place, but I don’t think that’s immediately true for many people,” Teller said. “It’s okay to need a little more time and exploration, and we should normalize that.”

This is what makes “College Kid” so personal for Wishnek to make — it’s about him.

A project four years in the making, the semi-autobiographical film traces Wishnek’s personal growth each year of college. Using musical and color motifs, the film mirrors what UNC-CH and filmmaking have taught him.

“In order to find happiness and fulfillment in your college experience, (in) life in general, you need to find and take part in your community,” Wishnek said.

“And that means putting in the work — doing something — to get there. The film industry is collaborative, not competitive. It’s the community of it all that makes a film thrive, and I think in life you have to find the same thing.”

As he scrolled through the last scene of “College Kid” on his screen, Wishnek spotted an error.

A scene between Alex and his friend Nathan, they’re sitting on a roof, looking at the night sky.

“See there?” Wishnek said, pointing to the screen. “You can see the boom pole’s shadow against the house.”

Embarrassed, he gritted his teeth as he watched the rest of the scene unfold.

“I just feel, in this moment, this sense of meaning,” Alex said to Nathan. “Nothing in particular. No one idea more significant than the other. Just…significance. And it’s a lot.”

Wishnek’s smile began to reappear.

Edited by: Madeleine Fraley 

From granite to HBO: How a southern boy transitioned to LA

By Virginia Phillips Blanton

 

He broke the mold

The trade offs were immense when Herman Phillips IV packed up his 2008 Honda CR-V, abandoning White Oak, South Carolina to traverse the country, running down a dream. Magnolia trees for palm trees. Crock-Pot mac ‘n cheese for authentic street pho. Acres of land for a rent-controlled shoebox. The boldest compromise was leaving the family granite business for a production assistant job at HBO.

Dora and Herman “Grady” Phillips III had five children. Hannah Brown, Ruthie, Mary Grace, Sarah and Hunter were raised in a town of 50 people. “Our parenting philosophy was to bring our children up in fear and admiration of the Lord,” Grady said.

“There was no part of my life untouched by religion,” Herman said. He couldn’t read “Harry Potter” because it was considered a satanic influence. Any film he watched was vetted through biblical movie reviews. Church on Sunday was clockwork.

“I always dreaded a Sunday morning in my house. I would dread the process of getting ready, putting on my tie and pushing everyone out the door. We had to drive an hour to church and an hour back. It was the most boring drive. We would listen to a sermon on the way, stay the entire service, then listen to a different sermon on the drive back,” Herman said.

He started going by Herman instead of his given name, Hunter, when he was 16. “It was too much of a stereotypical, southern boy name. I realized it wouldn’t be very good branding for who I wanted to be,” he said.

He chose filming over hunting

Phillips Granite Company was established in 1933. Herman always felt pressured to take over the family business and play the role of a good, Christian, southern gentleman. When he was 9 years old, he told his dad he wanted to be a filmmaker.

“I had two choices: to either embrace the expectations and lie to myself and others or leave it all behind and reinvent who I was supposed to be,” he said.

“I remember the first duck, quail and dove Hunter shot. I could read that it wasn’t a passion for him like it was for me. But he enjoyed us being together. We still hunt together when he comes home,” Grady said.

The one thing Herman gleefully shot as a boy was footage. He started writing little scripts when he was 7 years old. On a personal YouTube channel, he uploaded reviews of “The Chronicles of Narnia.” His parents allowed this online presence because he spoke with a brown paper bag over his head with eye cutouts to maintain privacy. When he was 13, his mother took him to be an extra in “The Hunger Games” franchise.

 

Growing up, Herman felt like he didn’t fit in with his White Oak, South Carolina community, but after working on HBO’s “Insecure”, he finally found his niche.

Adversity didn’t stop him

The first time Herman visited California was to tour colleges. Grady and Dora accompanied him. They passed out Bibles on the street in between tours of the University of Southern California and Loyola Marymount University. Even then, they sensed their son’s magnetism toward Los Angeles.

Granite weathers away slower than other rocks. But it can bear abrasions. Herman’s acceptance to the University of Southern California validated every unacceptance he felt in his hometown. “But when USC didn’t offer me any scholarships or financial aid whatsoever, everything seemed to collapse around me. I don’t think I’ve ever been that distraught, before or since. It’s still hard to think about,” he said. The reality of $60,000 a year sunk in. He enrolled in the University of South Carolina’s Honor College.

“He was very much a gentleman about it. He understood why he couldn’t go,” said Dora.

Herman’s career momentum kick started at a Philips’ family reunion, of all places.The  It was the summer before his first semester at the University of South Carolina. He was deflated about settling in South Carolina. He had no idea his mentor was floating in a sea of nametags. Hello, my name is: Ben Patrick. A production sound mixer who resided in LA, Patrick connected Herman with Jim Kleverweis, a producer at HBO. One coffee with Kleverweis and a conspicuous email correspondence landed him a summer job working on the television series “Insecure,” directed by Issa Rae. Herman worked every college summer in some entertainment capacity in LA

“People have their cliques, their respective groups, their fraternities and sororities. I had never felt like I had found my people, my tribe, until I stepped on a film set. Once I did, it washed over me. ‘Oh, this is what it’s supposed to be like,’” he said.

The City of Angels summoned him. The summer before his junior year of college, an assistant director on “Insecure” encouraged him to drop out and continue working with them. Heeding the advice, he loaded extra credit hours onto his schedule and plunged into his honors thesis, graduating a year early. His exodus from the East Coast began five days after graduation.

Neighbors warned him: “Traffic is going to be terrible,” and “They do it different out West.” The difference is what drives him. Jack Kerouac style, he sped through 10 states to his new home. The road trip was a formal education for his narrow worldview.

He grew but never changed

LA has not watered down his southern mannerisms from sweet to unsweet tea. The phrases yes ma’am, no ma’am, yes sir and no sir remain in his vernacular. “He’s found great success in his first few years in LA, but that hasn’t changed who he is. He’s still the same old Herman,” said Matt Francis, his best friend.

“One of the reasons he wears facial hair is to cover up the fact that he’s only 21. On Monday, he had to drive 40 miles to be on location at 5 a.m. He woke up at 3:30 a.m. and got organized. Hunter is very organized. Everything is working in his favor,” said Dora.

A wide shot of his West Coast life doesn’t fit a single still. His White Oak routine was stagnant. He facilitates physical production for the upcoming HBO series “Euphoria” with rising talent Zendaya. He was recently  asked back onto production for a fourth season of “Insecure.” He grabs coffee for the directors and actors, wires mics and escorts actors to the camera. Everything is time-sensitive.

There is a familial structure on set that comforts him when he feels uprooted from his immediate family.

“We’re all just a bunch of weirdos trying to make it for ourselves. We’re all here for the same reason, because you feel like you’re contributing to something bigger than yourself. A film can change people’s lives in ways you don’t even realize. Making something beautiful is why it all works,” he said.

Juggling a 65-hour work week, he has a standing call with his parents on Sunday afternoons, followed by another with his grandmother. Last spring, Grady and Herman went skydiving together. Herman jumped first.

“Once we were out of free fall, my tandem partner told me to look up. Hunter had jumped out first and we were the ones below him. How’d that happen,” Grady said.

The life Herman Grady Phillips IV lives isn’t guided by a predetermined headstone. “I’ve taken my family name and turned it into something totally different than what the name means in the South. Even though I may not be the fourth generation Phillips making granite, I represent the fourth generation of my family as entrepreneurs.” Etch that on his grave.

 

Edited by: Victoria Young

Pursuing Hollywood dreams means leaving behind Southern expectations

Herman Phillips IV moved from South Carolina to Los Angeles to become a production assistant at HBO. He is currently working on the shows “Insecure” and “Euphoria.”

By Virginia Phillips Blanton

The trade-offs were immense when Herman Phillips IV packed up his 2008 Honda CR-V, abandoning White Oak, South Carolina, to traverse the country, running down a dream. He traded magnolia trees for palm trees. Crockpot mac and cheese for authentic street pho. Acres of land for a rent-controlled shoebox. The boldest compromise: leaving behind the family granite business for a production assistant job at HBO.

Phillips Granite Company was established in 1933. Herman always felt pressured to take over the family business and play the role of a good, Christian, Southern gentleman. When he was 9, he told his dad he wanted to be a filmmaker.

“I had two choices. To either embrace the expectations and lie to myself and others, or leave it all behind and reinvent who I was supposed to be,” he said.

From Hunter to Herman

Dora and Herman “Grady” Phillips III have five children: Hannah Brown, Ruthie, Mary Grace, Sarah and Hunter.

Hunter started going by Herman when he was 16. “It was too much of a stereotypical Southern boy name. I realized it wouldn’t be very good branding for who I wanted to be,” he said.

The Phillips children were raised as Christians in a town of 50 people.

“Our parenting philosophy was to bring our children up in fear and admiration of the Lord,” Grady said.

“There was no part of my life untouched by religion,” Herman said. He couldn’t read “Harry Potter” because it was considered a satanic influence. Any film he watched was vetted through biblical movie reviews. Church on Sunday was like clockwork.

“I always dreaded a Sunday morning in my house,” Herman said. “I would dread the process of getting ready, putting on my tie and pushing everyone out the door. We had to drive an hour to church and an hour back. It was the most boring drive. We would listen to a sermon on the way, stay the entire service, then listen to a different sermon on the drive back.”

A passion for film

“I remember the first duck, quail and dove Hunter shot,” Grady said. “I could read that it wasn’t a passion for him like it was for me. But he enjoyed us being together. We still hunt together when he comes home.”

The one thing Herman gleefully shot as a boy was footage. He started writing little scripts when he was 7. On a personal YouTube channel, he uploaded reviews of “The Chronicles of Narnia.” His parents allowed this online presence because he spoke with a brown paper bag over his head with eye cutouts to maintain privacy. When he was 13, Dora drove him on set to be an extra in “The Hunger Games” franchise.

Going out West

The first time Herman visited California was to tour colleges. Grady and Dora accompanied him. They passed out Bibles on the street in-between tours of the University of Southern California and Loyola Marymount University. Even then, they sensed their son’s attraction to Los Angeles.

Herman’s acceptance to the University of Southern California validated every unacceptance he felt in his hometown.

“But when USC didn’t offer me any scholarships or financial aid whatsoever, everything seemed to collapse around me,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been that distraught, before or since. It’s still hard to think about.”

The reality of $60,000 a year sunk in, and he enrolled in the University of South Carolina’s Honors College.

“He was very much a gentleman about it. He understood why he couldn’t go,” Dora said.

A chance encounter

Of all places, a Phillips family reunion kick-started his career momentum. It was the summer before his first semester at UofSC. He was deflated about settling in South Carolina. He had no idea his mentor was floating in the sea of nametags.

Hello My Name Is: Ben Patrick. A production sound mixer who resided in LA, Patrick connected Herman with Jim Kleverweis, a producer at HBO. Coffee and email correspondence with Kleverweis landed him a summer job working on the television series “Insecure,” directed by Issa Rae. Herman worked in LA every summer during college in some entertainment capacity.

“People have their cliques, their respective groups, their fraternities and sororities. I had never felt like I had found my people, my tribe, until I stepped on a film set,” he said. “Once I did, it washed over me ‘Oh, this is what it’s supposed to be like.’”

The City of Angels summoned him. The summer before his junior year of college, an assistant director on “Insecure” encouraged him to drop out and continue working with them. Heeding the advice, he loaded extra credit hours onto his schedule and plunged into his honors thesis, graduating a year early. His exodus from the East Coast began five days after graduation.

‘Just a bunch of weirdos’

Neighbors warned him that “traffic is going to be terrible,” and “they do it different out West.” But the difference for Herman is what drives him. Jack Kerouac-style, he sped through 10 states to his new home. The road trip was a formal education for his narrow worldview.

Los Angeles has not watered down his Southern mannerisms from sweet to unsweet tea. “Yes ma’am, no ma’am, yes sir, no sir” remain in his vernacular.

“He’s found great success in his first few years in LA, but that hasn’t changed who he is. He’s still the same old Herman,” said Matt Francis, his best friend.

A wide shot of Herman’s West Coast life doesn’t fit a single still. His White Oak routine was stagnant. Now, he facilitates physical production for the upcoming HBO series “Euphoria” with rising talent Zendaya. He just got asked back onto production for season four of “Insecure.” He grabs coffee for the directors and actors, wires mics and escorts actors to the camera. Everything is time-sensitive.

“One of the reasons he wears facial hair is to cover up the fact that he’s only 21,” Dora said. “On Monday, he had to drive 40 miles to be on location at 5 a.m. He woke up at 3:30 a.m. and got organized. Hunter is very organized. Everything is working in his favor.”

There is a familial structure on set that comforts him when he feels uprooted from his immediate family.

“We’re all just a bunch of weirdos trying to make it for ourselves,” Herman said. “We’re all here for the same reason. Because you feel like you’re contributing to something bigger than yourself. A film can change people’s lives in ways you don’t even realize. Making something beautiful is why it all works.”

Taking back the family name

Juggling a 65-hour work week, he has a standing call with his parents on Sunday afternoons, followed by another with his grandmother. This past spring, Grady and Herman went skydiving together. Herman jumped first.

“Once we were out of free fall, my tandem partner told me to look up. Hunter had jumped out first and we were the ones below him. How’d that happen,” Grady said.

The life Herman Grady Phillips IV lives isn’t guided by a predetermined headstone. “I’ve taken my family name and turned it into something totally different than what the name means in the South,” Herman said. “Even though I may not be the fourth generation Phillips making granite, I represent the fourth generation of my family as entrepreneurs.”

Etch that on his grave.

Edited by Karyn Hladik-Brown.

Seeking black identity in a white world through rap

By Sophie Whisnant

(Photos courtesy of Alice Hudson)

Rapper and NC State student Phillip Green.

Philip Green leans back on a dirty old pull-out couch in his friend Cole Brown’s college apartment. His head bops along to the “Black Panther” soundtrack, but he’s exasperated and dehydrated after ranting about his descent from an almost mythical and deeply spiritual black Egyptian heritage.

“I’m that black dude that likes to talk about Egypt,” Green says once he catches his breath.

“Yeah but can you rap about it?” asks Brown, his words bouncing off the miscellaneous bongs and smoking vessels scattered around his apartment.

Green just laughs, sinking deeper into the couch. This is a question he’s been asked before.

Growing up in a white world

Since he was old enough to go to school in his hometown of Wilmington, N.C., Green has been one of, if not the only, black people in his class. He’s channeled the teasing and loneliness he’s felt through his original rap music and has a budding career as a successful rapper in the Raleigh area.

Although he raps about racism, Green’s world is surprisingly whitewashed. His music might tell the story of someone fed up with racism and society, but to the outside world, Green seems comfortable living a white life.

Green’s rapping career is now almost 8 years old. He started off posting songs on SoundCloud that he made in his makeshift home studio under the moniker “PG-13.” A junior communications major at N.C. State University, Green performs with the popular Triangle rap group “They Came from Lemuria” in Raleigh bars once a month.

Rap was therapeutic for Green as a middle schooler at a small Quaker school in Wilmington, where no one looked like him. His skin color felt the most confining when learning about history and the accomplishments of the Europeans.

“The books we read didn’t have people that look like (me),” Green said.

It didn’t change much once he got to high school. As part of a smaller accelerated college program within a public school, Green was one of five students in New Hanover High School’s Lyceum program. The signature dreadlocks that he started growing when he was 9 made him stand out even more.

In high school, Green experienced racism in subtle and overt ways. He still remembers feeling angry and embarrassed when the topic of flying monkeys came up in class. His peers compared him to the monkeys, laughing about their similarities.

“I’m the butt of the joke,” Green said. “If there’s five people making a black joke, and you’re the only black person, I gotta laugh about it too.”

One of Green’s oldest friends and classmates, Gavin Campbell, who is white, was in the room when the monkey joke took off.

“I have heard years of people calling him an ‘Oreo,’” Campbell said, “asking why he ‘acts white.’”

What bothers Campbell the most is when others seem surprised that Green can be a well-spoken and polite black man. Throughout their friendship, Campbell said he’s noticed how, in stores, white people keep an eye on Green.

Green has felt those extra eyes on him. He has always been conscious of his skin color and what he looked like sitting across from his classmates. It didn’t get easier when he started college.

Higher education, same problems

As a freshman Green almost reflexively joined a white fraternity, but later became inactive when he found it too similar to high school. He was tired of being the only black man in the room.

Despite this, two years later, Green still lives in an almost exclusively white world. He spends Thursday nights with his girlfriend, Hannah Neely, who is white. They lovingly pass a bong back and forth while cuddling on the couch and making plans to visit their other friends, who are also all white, later that night.

Green’s closest friends are all white. After years of being the lone black person in class, he now describes white people as his “comfort zone.” Despite the hurtful joking, he said, his friends are generally well-meaning and have given him a different way to look at the world.

“Being seen by the majority of your white peers as the ‘token’ friend is an inevitability,” Campbell said. “Philip has retained his identity as a black man through his music, friendships with people from various walks of life, and through general pride in his identity which I’m extremely proud of him for maintaining.”

Even though he has friendships with people like Campbell that he values, Green still enjoys, and relies on, being able to play what he and his girlfriend call the “race card.”

“You pull it in social settings where you’re high or uncomfortable,” Neely said to Green about the card.

Green said that he’ll respond to his white friends with the phrase “Oh, it’s because I’m black?” to raise awareness about what is offensive, or to just make his friends uncomfortable and defensive for his own entertainment. It’s funny to him, his little way of getting back at his friends for the jokes they’ve made about him over the years.

But even though he talks about race with his friends, he doesn’t feel like people take his blackness seriously.

Green’s parents own an environmental restoration service. He’s always been comfortable financially and didn’t feel like he fit in with a lot of the other black kids in his high school.

“I have felt pretty lonely,” Green said, “just because, like, I’ve created this niche for myself where it’s like I’m the suburban black kid.”

Because of his socioeconomic status, he’s found it difficult to defend his race with white people.

“People don’t take my advocacy as seriously,” he said. “They don’t think my voice is as valid.”

Rapping: thinking out loud

They may not listen, but speaking up has always been important to Green. He’s passionate about his political views, like his belief that incarceration is modern-day slavery. He will discuss how the TV show “Cops” is lynching, and vent about how black men only witness the American dream through programs with white actors like “Friends.”

When Green speaks about these issues, he starts to use the rap voice he’s been honing since he was 13. He speaks deeply with a natural flow, accenting certain words and syllables to emphasize what’s important. Rap is his preferred method of communication.

Green’s rhymes have reflected his anxieties of being the only black face in a white world. On the 15-minute track “Griselda Negro,” Green raps, “‘Bro, today it ain’t about race’/ Yes it is, the wealth gap it’s a massive issue doe, yes, I notice dis,” and, “They sayin’ I’m free/ Only on the day I escape from my b-o-d-y.” These lyrics might contradict the white life Green has carved out for himself, but they voice the black side of him that he keeps hidden within his social circle. When he “spits” certain lines, he’s sharing his passion. His songs are his diary and provide an outlet that lets him live the blackness that’s missing in his daily life.

Whether rap is a coping mechanism or not, it brings Green happiness unlike anything else. If he isn’t working on a song, he’s listening to rap, either on his own or with his group of friends sharing a joint. Rap isn’t just an escape, it’s his lifestyle.

“This is what I feel the best doing,” he said.

Edited by David Fee

 

Balancing books and beats: UNC students make music between classes

By Moses Musilu

Late Tuesday night, Wesley Simmons sits alone at his desk, under a dimmed blue lamp, buried in his laptop.

With a few more taps on the keyboard, the Charlotte native finally finishes his assignment for class and closes his laptop to check the time on his clock: 1 a.m.

Slowly he collects the books and notes spread across the desk, neatly separates what he needs for class and puts it in his book bag. Picking up the clock, he adjusts the alarm for 9 a.m. the next day, and turns off the light in his room.

But instead of getting in his bed, he goes back to his desk and increases the brightness on his lamp. He pulls out his headphones, pen and notebook and begins to write. Countless songs and poems consume the pages, dating back to when he was in eighth grade.

For Simmons, it’s the perfect time to make what he loves: Music.

And there are times when you’d find him wide awake until 5 a.m. deep in his notebook.

“Most of my writing comes between that time,” he said. “That’s when it starts to click for me. There’s nothing else I have to think about. Being up that late doesn’t feel like I’m forcing myself to do it.

“During the day, I’m always thinking what I have to do, whether that’s class or meetings. But at the end of the day, it’s just me and what I want to do with my time. That’s music.”

“The College Dropout” or “Graduation”?

With a growing hip-hop community, students find themselves trying to balance the books with their music. For some, the weight is too much. Raekwon Williams, a 22-year-old rapper from Raleigh, North Carolina, dropped out of UNC-Greensboro his sophomore year to pursue a music career.

“I felt that school was distracting me to the point where I wasn’t putting my all into my music,” Williams said. “I wanted to devote everything I had to it. So now I’m here.”

Williams wasn’t the first to drop out in search of musical fame. Successful hip-hop artists such as Common, Sean Combs (P. Diddy) and Kanye West dropped out of college to pursue a career in music. Kanye West’s journey led to his record-breaking “The College Dropout” album.

Dropping out of school isn’t a decision that’s encouraged by most. In an interview, Kanye West told high school students to stay in school for the opportunities it provides and that his road to success was harder because of his decision to leave school.

Simmons goes by the name “Wes” in his music. Influenced by his parents, Simmons enrolled in UNC-Chapel Hill as an exercise sports science major in hopes of one day becoming a doctor.

But his desire of becoming a doctor slowly faded away, and by sophomore year he knew he wanted to turn his musical hobby into a profession. School seemed to be a waste of time.

“I began to realize I didn’t like school in high school,” Simmons said. “But once I got to college and had all the freedom, it solidified it. My mindset became more independent. Back at home, we’re so influenced by our parents, but they’re not living your life. You have to do what’s right for you.”

Simmons came to the realization when he was walking through campus on a Wednesday night. Every Wednesday, there would be a group of students freestyling in front of the Student Stores. He was impressed, but knew he could do better. After making friends in the group, he was introduced to other artists who showed him where he could record and make music.

But for Simmons, balancing music and school has always been a problem.

“Unfortunately, a lot of times, one or the other suffers,” he said. “If I have an exam one week, my writing suffers. Sometimes I get carried away in my writing and a test suffers.”

Amara Orji, another hopeful artist attending UNC-CH, agreed that although balancing music and college is difficult, it’s better to have a degree in case it doesn’t work out.

“Having a music career would be amazing,” he said. “But I know that there are millions of aspiring artists who work and try just as hard and don’t make it. Staying in school, I’ll always have something to fall back on.

“Also, my parents might kill me if I dropped out,” he quickly added.

Orji, who also studied exercise sports science, goes by the name “N19E.” It took him until his senior year at UNC-CH to realize he wanted to become a rapper, but he says his late revelation was probably for the best.

“I wouldn’t have dropped out but I might have started to question whether the work I was doing was worth it,” Orji said.

“I might not be famous, but I’m still an artist.”

Now on the verge of finishing his senior year, dropping out of college to pursue stardom was never a serious thought that crossed 22-year-old Simmons’ mind. He said when he starts something, he wants to finish it.

And it’s always good to have a backup plan.

Simmons said some people forget some famous artists weren’t discovered until they were older. He sees no reason to rush to stardom and is embracing his music journey.

“If Kendrick Lamar called me up, told me to fly out to California right now and sign me to a record deal, of course I’ll drop everything and go,” he said. “But that hasn’t happened, and I know what I learn from the connections and people I’ve met here are going to help me change the world through music.”

And if he doesn’t make it?

“Then I don’t make it,” Simmons said “I might not be famous, but I’m still an artist. I’ll still be able to make an impact on some people’s lives. It just won’t be as many.”

Simmons plans on becoming a teacher after graduation through Teach for America. He said teaching is what he wants to do through his music, so it made sense to become a teacher because of the major impact they have on people.

Simmons wants to change the world through his music the way Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West have by relating to a lot of people.

“Whether it was love or the struggle of growing up in bad environments, people used their music to help themselves in good and hard times,” he said. “I want people to have my body of art and transform the people who hear it like they did. I want it to be something they can carry in their lives forever.”

Simmons has released two albums in the past year on his SoundCloud page and will soon release music videos. He performs at local open mic nights around Chapel Hill with other hip-hop artists from UNC-CH whenever he has the chance.

“I performed at a show with 30 people the other day, and compared to Kendrick, of course that’s nothing,” he said. “But, that meant the world to me. I enjoyed everyone in there, and I know this is just the beginning. You have to crawl before you can walk.”

Edited by Ana Irizarry

Meet Shea Stanley: the funny first lady of We the Ladies

By Jessica Abel

In a small, low-lit classroom at UNC-Chapel Hill late on a Monday night, a group of women are gathered in a circle of desks, typing fiercely. Each one is focused on the script in front of her, not thinking, just writing.

They are here for a comedy workshop hosted by We the Ladies, a student comedy group devoted to increasing gender diversity in comedic writing and performing. The project is led in part by Shea Stanley, who began her college comedy career her first year on campus with the group False Profits.

Now a junior, Stanley splits her time writing for False Profits and guiding both amateur and established comedians with We the Ladies.

Tonight, she’s helping writers create colorful character scenes through a free writing exercise. The click-clacking of fingernails on keyboards carries down the hall as everyone spills their last ideas onto their pages.

“OK, that’s time,” Stanley says.

She looks up and surveys the room.

“Who wants to go first?”

There’s a moment of hesitation as the writers make eye contact and smirk at one another, holding back their thoughts.

And then, shyly, someone gives it a try.

“Angry astronaut at a strip mall.”

The room fills with giggles. Then come thoughts of how to make a full scene out of a bitter Buzz Aldrin type. It would have to take place in Florida, the writers agree. The only place where astronauts, strip malls and anger overlap is Florida.

This continues with dozens of ideas.

“Goofy dentist on a rooftop.”

“Bored zookeeper in Sacramento.”

“Envious therapist at a church.”

Stanley leads the group through their thoughts, crafting dialogue and scene ideas to help make art out of the creative skeletons. She offers advice, patience and laughs as the women collaborate into the night.

Finding her comedic footing

Before Stanley founded We the Ladies or began college comedy, the Charleston, South Carolina native first tried stand-up in a smaller venue. It was at her high school’s version of a talent show, a coffee house-style setup where students could jump on stage and try out new material.

Stanley chose to mock her childhood YouTube channel by flipping through a PowerPoint of her hairstyles in the videos.

“My hair was just really bad in it,” Stanley said. “Everyone was shocked. They were like, ‘Where’s your part? What’s happening?’”

She walked offstage to laughs feeling good about her performance.

What she didn’t realize was that she’d taken nearly half an hour to finish the joke.

“My teacher came up to me and said, ‘That was great. You were up there for twenty minutes,’” Stanley said.

Now, her comedy takes a much different approach. She’ll sit down with an idea, almost always the end of a joke, and work through the script backwards. She’ll write 30 percent of a scene, leave it, and then come back with an entirely new idea. She’ll stop what she’s doing to help another writer complete her vision before returning to her own work, re-inspired.

Stanley and Ellie Rodriguez, We the Ladies’ other co-founder, hold office hours at Linda’s bar on Franklin Street. The formal name is contrasted by the relaxed way Stanley treats writing. She’ll scope out a booth, order some fully-loaded Tater Tots and sit with whoever shows up to write and exchange ideas.

“It’s a good environment to pitch ideas, especially ideas that aren’t necessarily super funny to men,” Stanley said. “False Profits is pretty collaborative, and I love all my male friends in that, but there are some things that go over better in an all-femme group.”

Mary Amos, the comedian who pitched the angry Floridian astronaut sketch in Stanley’s workshop, agreed.

“I just haven’t been in a lot of groups that are all-femme. Other than, maybe, my household,” Amos said, laughing. “I think that’s why this is so nice.”

Funny off the clock, too

Though Stanley doesn’t use her housemates as a tester audience often, her friends got to know her comedy style quickly.

Katie Otto, who shared a suite in Koury residence hall with Stanley her first year, remembers meeting her future friend for the first time.

“It was funny from the beginning because Shea was under the impression that she had met me already, but she’d really met someone else who she thought was me,” Otto said. “She was so confused. She was like, ‘Who’s this stranger in my suite?’”

To this day, they have no idea who the impostor girl could have been, or if Stanley simply forgot what Otto looked like.

“Maybe she met my mom and thought it was me? I don’t know,” Otto said, smiling. “It’s our mystery.”

Otto was also there when Stanley first discovered False Profits. They went to a stand-up comedy workshop hosted by the group during the first week of school.

“We played improv games and just chatted,” Otto said. “And even from that, I could tell Shea had such a strong ability to create comedic timing and make others laugh.”

Stanley carried that lightheartedness back to the suite where she made their home a bit of a fun house.

On the windowsill of their bathroom, she kept a copy of the Communist Manifesto for decorative purposes. She referred to the suite as “The Commune” and to all her housemates as “Comrades.”

She kept a fish as the suite pet and mascot and named it “Fishgerald.” Once, over break, she forgot to bring Fishgerald home and panic-texted Otto and her housemates to be sure he was still swimming.

Before Stanley left to study in London last semester, she gave her housemate and best friend, Mary Beth, a semester survival guide as a Christmas present. It included Stanley’s best decision-making advice and tips to living without her comedian roommate.

Safe to say, her friends and fellow comedians are happy to have her back.

Punchlines with real impact

As Stanley gets ready for senior year, her priorities are to make We the Ladies as diverse as possible, and to raise more money for local charities. She chooses a different organization to benefit from every show. Last time she collected toiletries and money for the Compass Center, a non-profit committed to supporting victims of domestic abuse. This year, she’s hoping to collect diapers and funds for a rehabilitation center in the Triangle.

The combination of charity, diversity and comedy has resonated with the Chapel Hill community. For her last show, over 100 people came to support Stanley, We the Ladies and the Compass Center.

“The day of anything I’m hosting, I always think, ‘Well, no one’s coming. I’m going to show up, and it’s going to be pathetic,’” Stanley said. “But people started showing up early. They packed the place. It was amazing.”

This, no doubt, had to do with the great cause Stanley was supporting. But it was driven by the impact she’s personally had on the Chapel Hill community. People are captivated by her self-described loud laugh, her thoughtfulness, her ambition. It’s the key to We the Ladies’ success and her legacy at Carolina.

“Shea is so funny and has so much confidence,” Otto said. “She is great at making people smile. I’m so glad I got to live with her and get to know her.”

Edited by Lily Stephens

The business of sprouting joy and peace from tiny seeds in Durham

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Almost 700 plants surround visitors from all angles at The ZEN Succulent. Photo by Molly Weybright.

By Molly Weybright

Shades of green — a gradient so expansive that you didn’t know so many variants of the color existed.  Colors that look like the way a granny smith apple tastes, like the feeling of damp grass between your toes, like petrichor — the earthy smell after heavy rain.  Over 100 different species of plants hang from the ceiling, rest on shelves against the walls and nestle into nooks around the floor.  Succulents and ferns surround you in the 400 square foot space that holds almost 700 plants.  They’re impossible to avoid.

Not that you would want to.

Stepping into The ZEN Succulent, a small store in Durham, N.C., is like entering another world.  It feels like Neverland — wild and untamed but also carefully crafted — every plant has a place where it belongs.  It is the type of place Peter Pan would long to call home.  The greens and browns and organized chaos exude wanderlust and magic; any minute a fairy might flit out from behind the large leaf of a philodendron.  If Tinker Bell were to ever find herself in Durham, this is undoubtedly where she would end up.

Megan George has crafted her small store to be more than just a plant shop.  She has created, as if by magic, an atmosphere of natural, easygoing relaxation that is impossibly inviting.  She wants to create a community of trust and creativity and believes that The ZEN Succulent and her plants are the best way to do it.

“Plants bring me joy, inspiration and happiness,” she said, and through The ZEN Succulent, she is able to share that with the community.

 

A roundabout past

Megan George grew up in Raleigh surrounded by plants.  Both of her parents were ardent plant-lovers and they often took her to greenhouses and nurseries.  Her love of plants is founded in the deep history that she has with learning about plants and how to care for them.

“The seeds that were planted way back when,” she said, “how I’m able to use them now, it’s crazy.”

She moved back to Raleigh in 2011 after graduating from business school at UNC-Greensboro.  Yearning for small-business jobs, she realized quickly that there were very few available.  She found herself working for the North Carolina Education Lottery.

She did not enjoy the job — her creativity was being stifled.  So, in an effort to combat her frustration, she started an Etsy page selling succulents and terrariums.

“Through my frustration in not being able to implement all of the things I learned at school,” she said, “that’s how [The ZEN Succulent] came about.”

And she never looked back.

Megan’s passion continued to grow as she developed ways to increase people’s knowledge about houseplants, succulents and terrariums.  She has since worked with HGTV, published a book titled “Modern Terrarium Studio” and opened The ZEN Succulent.

When Bakara Wintner, the owner of Everyday Magic, which now adjoins The ZEN Succulent, offered her the 400-square-foot space, Megan said she felt like it was fate rather than chance.

“At that point, I’d never said the words ‘I want to have a shop’ out loud,” she said.  “Even though I really wanted it, I’d just never had the opportunity.  But [Bakara] gave me that opportunity and I thought, why not?”

As soon as she knew she had a space to expand her passion, she jumped headfirst into building the business she always dreamed of having.

“In 20 years I can say ‘I did it,’” Megan said, “instead of saying ‘I wish I had done it.’”

Sarah Riazati, who works at Everyday Magic, was there when Megan signed the lease.  In less than a month, she said, Megan transformed the small, box-filled space into a “luscious, green, amazing-smelling little store.”  Sarah said she couldn’t believe how fast Megan created the green wonderland.

“That was really when I saw her design sense coming out,” she said.  “There are so many pieces that go into it.  It showed she had a really strong vision.”

Megan’s design sense and her business intuition work perfectly together to create a cohesive and thriving store where customers feel at home upon their first visit.

Megan said she wants shopping at The ZEN Succulent to be a very personal experience where customers get one-on-one attention to help their plant journey be as successful as possible.

“People can go anywhere to get plants,” Megan said, “so why do they come to me?”

One reason is the holistic approach she takes when dealing with the store.  She believes that if she has all of the things people need to create their terrariums or potted plants, then they will be more successful. So, if a customer buys a plant and a pot from The ZEN Succulent, Megan will put them together for free.

Megan’s sole employee, Julie Ragsdale, described her as knowledgeable and business-savvy as well as hilarious, kind and generous.

“I couldn’t imagine finding a more enjoyable person to work with,” Julie said.

When it comes down to it, those qualities are what make Megan and The ZEN Succulent so successful.  She is more than just a business owner or a plant lover — she is a people lover who wants to impart happiness and serenity upon everyone she meets.

 

Thriving in the present

Since opening the store Megan hasn’t stopped trying to involve members of the community with her business.  Her newest idea is to hold workshops at The ZEN Succulent.

She has collaborated with local artists to host watercolor painting, spoon carving, floral arranging and calligraphy workshops.  Megan herself hosts succulent terrarium building workshops where up to 10 people can make their own terrariums, each unique to the individual creating it.

“At all of the workshops everybody leaves with their own creation and something extra to recreate the exercise again,” she said.  “They are leaving with something to continue their journey.”

From her terrarium workshops participants will leave with their newly made succulents as well as instructions on how to recreate the experience in their own homes.

Her first workshop, hosted on Tuesday, April 18, sold out in five days with little promotion. Megan said that she was thrilled at how quickly the workshop sold out — she wants to help people discover the joy of owning and crafting indoor plants.

“We’re not just putting plants in glassware,” she said, “we’re making a landscape.”

As the 10 participants began to arrive on April 18, Megan put the finishing touches on the workshop spaces.  Each person would have a glass bowl; soil, sand and rocks; six succulents; and the tools necessary to put it all together.

She began the workshop by talking about how the succulents are low maintenance plants, which is what makes them ideal for small spaces with little natural light.

“I went into a low-maintenance business for a reason,” she joked.

But, unbeknownst to the 10 women participating, Megan had just spent the previous three hours getting ready and setting up for the workshop — on her day off.  The ZEN Succulent is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, but that doesn’t stop her from tending to the behind-the-scenes work that makes the store so magical.

For almost three hours she flitted around the store preparing the setups for the participants, vacuuming and running out to a nearby shop to purchase complimentary wine for the women.

But Megan doesn’t mind.  In fact, she loves it.

“When you enjoy what you’re doing you really want to excel,” she said.

Many of the participants were first-time plant owners looking to find some low maintenance yet beautiful plants to liven up their living and work spaces.

Diane Ditzel from Durham lives in a small apartment and wants to garden but has no land.  She heard about Megan’s workshop and felt like it was the perfect solution to her lack of space.  As the workshop progressed Diane realized that creating the terrarium was almost its own form of gardening.  She was taking living things and putting them together to create her own miniature garden.

“It’s like art,” she said.

Other participants felt that the idea of creating a succulent terrarium from scratch was daunting, but they found that once they got started under Megan’s instructions, everything fell into place.

Kim O’Brien, a participant from Wake Forest, prefaced the workshop by admitting that she had no idea what she was doing, but by the end felt that the experience was incredibly therapeutic.

“She’s good,” Kim said of Megan’s ease with plants and people and putting the two together.

And she is.

Megan said she purposefully doesn’t make a terrarium during the workshop so that the participants can make the terrariums in their own way.

There is no wrong way to create these landscapes, she said, and the freer people are to work on their own, the more they will appreciate the creativity and uniqueness of the results.

She also lets the participants pick six out of the hundreds of succulents she has available so they can pick the plants that they are most drawn to.  Megan emphasizes that plants are not just decorations, but are living things that individuals can connect with.  She said the terrarium building process is a “very organic experience.”

Many of the participants were thrilled and astounded by the wide variety of plants they could choose from, including Cassidy Johnson from Chapel Hill.

“I’ve never seen some of these before,” she said.  “It looks like something out of Dr. Seuss.”

Some of the plants are fuzzy and some are smooth.  Some are long, skinny and loping while others are squat and round.  There are pink plants and teal plants and red plants and blue plants.  Looking at the succulents side by side does seem like a small world out of the mind of Seuss himself.

Cassidy first noticed The ZEN Succulent as she was walking around downtown Durham, and when one of her coworkers at the Carolina Women’s Center heard about Megan’s workshop, they decided to check it out.

She said that she was thrilled about how relaxing the workshop was and how much she got out of it.

“We all have pretty serious jobs,” Cassidy said, “so it felt pretty nice to come do something like this.”

That’s exactly what Megan strives for — people discovering the serenity of working with plants and taking that discovery with them when they leave.

 

A wide-open future

When it comes to running a small business, Megan said she feels that passion is one of the most important aspects to finding success.  Her love of plants and her business skills create a perfect niche where she finds joy and success.  She described owning and running The ZEN Succulent as an “honor, privilege and responsibility.”

Her biggest piece of advice?

“Do something that you love and be authentic when you do it.”

Striving for that authenticity is something that she says she does every day.  She knows that she needs that authenticity as she continues to build and expand upon her ideas.

“I’m very aware of the mortality of my business,” she said, “because this is something that I need to take to another level, otherwise it’s going to be very static.”

While she is always looking forward to see what she can do to expand, she can’t help but reflect back on how far she has come.

As the anniversary of opening the shop approaches in May, Megan said that it’s hard to believe how much has come out of her passion for plants and her knack for business.

“It could have happened to anyone,” she said, “but I’m glad that it happened to me.”

She is not sure what her next step is, but as far as she can see into the future, Megan sees herself with The ZEN Succulent.

“I enjoy what I’m doing,” she said.  “This could be a forever thing.”

Edited by Bridget Dye.

NC state mandate threatens high school arts and specialty classes

By Colleen Brown

The bell shrieked, releasing a rush of students from classrooms. I pressed myself against one wall, trying not to get in the way of the stampede.

The students at William G. Enloe High School seemed smaller than I remembered them being, or maybe I just grew in the two years since I walked the halls. They darted around one another, chatting or staring down at phones as they passed teachers.

The teachers stuck on hall patrol looked out over the crowd of bobbing heads with faraway expressions. They didn’t bother asking students to put their phones away and students paid them no attention whatsoever.

A two-minute warning sounded and like water leaking down a drain, the teenagers found places to be that weren’t the hallway. A few stragglers slipped into classrooms just as the final bell rang.

The hallway echoed emptily as I walked down the worn tan and green tile, grown dull and scratched in months since its last buffing. It smelled vaguely old, a given in a building that was built in the 60s.

A mural painting of a galaxy wrapped around the door and lockers outside my old astronomy classroom. Reds and pinks, navy and touches of black covered the institutional white cinder blocks. A large greyish-white moon and small white stars twinkled on top of the riot of color.

A student walked by holding a tripod and a staff topped with the golden head of Ra, the Egyptian sun god.

Another mural graced the walkway outside the cafeteria. Photo-realistic fruits, each as tall as a person, overlapped each other. A sign by the mural said “Enloe Beautification in Progress,” a warning for students not to vandalize the new piece. Someone had crossed out the word “Enloe” and written “Enloe sucks 3/20/2017”.

I laughed. That’s about what I expected.

Arts in trouble

This past November, Republican Senate leaders in the North Carolina General Assembly created a mandate, hidden in the state budget, that will lower class sizes in Kindergarten through third grade to a maximum of 18 students per teacher. Although lower class sizes are better for learning, this mandate came with a problem: extra money was not provided to pay for the hiring of new teachers.

I spoke over the phone with Mary Casey, the K-12 Director of Arts Education at Durham Public Schools, to help me better understand how this mandate will affect students and teachers.

According to Casey, the response from school districts statewide was virtually unanimous: the only way to pay for smaller class sizes without increased funding is to cut arts, physical education and specialist classes.

The mandate might not affect just elementary schools. Each district has discretion in figuring out how to pay for teachers. According to Casey, some might just cut elementary specialists. Other districts might spread the cuts across elementary, middle and high schools in order to keep a few teachers at each level.

This means no art, band, dance or music for students. No gym, orchestra or other specialties like newspaper and audiovisual classes. But more than that, the state is taking away teachers’ livelihoods, their incomes and careers.

“A lot of people are saying they’ll make the students a pawn in this,” Casey said. “We believe in a well-rounded student, which includes specialists, in support of classroom teachers. Engagement and self-expression in the arts and PE are part of a child’s growth. It’s a huge part of how they develop, through movement and song and artwork.”

Casey has 175 art teachers under her, one of whom is my mother. It’s unlikely any of them will have a job this upcoming school year.

Enloe

Enloe GT/IB Center for the Humanities, Sciences and the Arts is one of the most challenging high schools in the state, ranked seventh in NC by The Washington Post in 2016. A school like Enloe is built off enticing talented students into a poorer, underachieving region of Wake County like southeast Raleigh through advanced classes in the humanities, sciences and arts. Take away those classes, and you take away the success. I spent four years here, growing and learning as a person. I likely wouldn’t have gotten in to UNC-Chapel Hill if not for Enloe.

Physical Education: Womble

I met with Andrew Womble, one of the best soccer coaches I ever played for, during his weightlifting class.

Womble looked the same, rocking athletic gear and a crew cut, with the body of a former athlete who’s still, mostly, keeping up with it after seven years teaching at Enloe. He lives in Sanford. The pay to work in Wake County makes up for the hour-long commute, but it’s nothing compared to what he made working in Texas.

Womble commanded the room of teenage boys with absolute respect and a booming Southern accent, putting them through their warm-up paces on the heavy, old-fashioned weight racks. The bars creaked and groaned as we spoke. The boys were doing squat clean and jerks, throwing the weight bar above their heads before letting it slam to the rubber mats. It smelled awful, a caustic mix of sweat and metal, exacerbated by poor air conditioning.

“It’s… tough, and to be honest, I’m looking for a way out,” Womble said as he went over the students’ numbers from their max-out day. “There’s not been any money invested in athletics. I think the drive’s starting to get to me more and more a little every year. I only get $2,400 for coaching. Pennies on the hour. It’s just not worth it.”

The workout broke down toward the end of class. Boys started doing their favorite exercises. Some lifted dumbbells. Others did chin-ups. Nirvana played over the speakers, which had some of the guys rocking air guitars in front of the wall-to-wall mirrors.

When I asked to take photos, one boy ripped off his shirt and started flexing. Womble barked at him to put his shirt back on because, “No one wants to see that.” The class laughed, giving the boy a hard time for trying to show off in front of a college girl.

I explained the predicament the NC legislature had placed schools, almost shouting to be heard over the music and weights. Womble just shook his head slowly.

“If I wasn’t an athlete, I wouldn’t have gone to college,” Womble said. “I hated school, only liked sports. They teach leadership, work ethics, motivational stuff, this is stuff kids carry their lives. I couldn’t picture myself as a five-year-old not being able to play. There’s a bunch of kids that are going to be left behind.”

Studio Art: Klenow

The classroom was light, airy and absolutely packed with art. Art on the walls, the tables, the windows. Drawings of pineapple and buildings in correct aspect ratio hung on the wall next to a mobile of small, grasping hands bunched together. There were watercolors, pastel sketches and mixed media lining the hallway outside the classroom, shepherding you into an explosion of color and chaos.

The countertop lining the back wall was splashed with dried paint, supporting wooden easels, newspaper clippings and stray bits of paper. On the back wall, the words “Line, Space, Shape, Value, Color and Texture” were printed. “ABC: Always Be Creating” adorned another wall.

Ten students, mostly girls, stay in the class during Mrs. Klenow’s planning period for lunch. They were dressed in artsy clothing, with Chuck Taylors and shirts advertising bands I’ve never heard of. They’ve created their own little hideout here in the art room.

Trish Klenow is a middle-aged woman of medium height, with light hair highlighted an artsy reddish color. She spoke and moved quickly, with motions that made her seem younger somehow, quirky in her capris and comfortable shoes. She wore dangly silver earrings and a silvery watch, paired with a key-shaped necklace.

“I knew from a young age that art was my passion, that this is what I wanted to do,” Klenow said in-between bites of low-fat Greek yogurt.

She told me about working near the Texas-Mexico border. “There was razor wire, fires, fights breaking out all the time,” she said. “But my budget there was twice what it is here. My salary was better. I won an award, Most Outstanding Art Educator, High School Division, for all of Texas.” Klenow gestured to the plaque on the wall above her desk with a plastic spoon.

Klenow has been voraciously keeping up with news about the mandate.

“I am such an advocate for art education,” she said. “It teaches critical thinking and creativity. To take it away, you are handicapping one of our strengths. I’m afraid, for students, for myself, for my colleagues.”

Klenow looked around her classroom, surveying the students working on projects. One girl painted a watercolor with rapid, small motions, spreading blues and purples. Others gathered in the center of the room, talking politics away from the insanity of the overcrowded cafeteria.

“I love my nerds here, they’re so dedicated,” Klenow said. “I’ve had children tell me that the only reason they come to school is for art. It’s not just fun art therapy. I have students who’ve gotten prize money, great scholarships they need for college. It’s just not fair.”

One of the students, senior Ken Wear, was packing his sculpture into a shipping box headed for the Parsons School of Design and a two-year tour of the United States.

Wear is small and unassuming, with glasses and short, stubbly hair mostly covered by a black beanie. He wore a dark hoodie with what I thought was a Tardis on the back.

His piece that’s going on tour, Sucellus, is a hand-sculpted clay mask with leaves coming out of the back of the head. Small black beetles crawl over the face into empty eye sockets.

Wear is still deciding on which college to attend. He received a $54,000 scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago, but is waiting to hear back from the Maryland Institute College of Art to see if he wins their full scholarship.

“I can’t pay $150,000, so I’ll go to the one that gives me more money,” Wear said, half-joking. “I’m trying not to be in debt for the rest of my life.”

Wear isn’t sure what he’ll do in the future, whether it be gallery work or teaching, but is sure either school will offer great opportunities.

Before leaving for his next class, Wear turned to me with no prompting and said: “Art is the only thing I can really lose myself in. I don’t know what I’d do if they took it away.”

Edited by Luke Bollinger