“I took the picture because she’s my little sister and she’s so special and she’s nice and she shares with people,” explains a Francis Marion School student’s hand-written note card under her photograph on display in the Smith Building Art Gallery.
The recent “Home” exhibit features one photograph from each of Marion, Alabama’s sixty third graders, a close-knit group of children in a community-oriented town.
Though a smaller city in Alabama’s Black Belt, Marion is home to some of the most rich culture and history in the state. Take, for example, its educational track record. The city of Marion website says that shortly after the Civil War, in 1867, a group of freed slaves founded the Lincoln Normal School there. The school remained open for over 100 years, graduating Coretta Scott King among other notable individuals, before relocating in 1969 to Montgomery as Alabama State University, according to encyclopediaofalabama.org. Marion’s website also says that Howard College, now Samford University in Birmingham, was founded there in 1841. Currently, Marion is home to both Judson College and Marion Military Institute.
Marion also features the Cahaba River, many streams and creeks, and is known for fertile Black Belt soil all allowing for agriculture.
The city has many historic structures, like the Smith Building Art Gallery, built in 1880. The Smith Building itself had been inactive for decades before the “Home” exhibit began two months ago.
Helping Marion and Perry County is a focal point of the University Fellows Experience at the University of Alabama, a service-based learning program through the Honors College. Since May 2009, Alabama Fellows students have devoted themselves to projects in the region through the Black Belt Experience, the signature Fellows project.
The individual projects, planned and executed by these Alabama students, have ranged from a literacy camp to renovating the 600-acre Perry Lakes Park to opening “Home,” an art exhibit featuring the town’s children’s pictures of what feels like home to them.
After taking Fellows classes in the Fall semester on poverty and the Alabama Black Belt, two students, Charlotte McRae and Sarah Beth Strickland, visited Marion with the other Fellows freshmen and came up with the idea for “Home.”
“There needs to be more art in the community,” explained McRae. “It’s a way for people to connect without having to worry about where they come from, who they are, or their age, because everyone can appreciate art.”
Each Marion third grader received a disposable camera and the instruction to spend some time photographing what they felt most closely represented their homes. “We decided to incorporate children, because children are the future, and they need encouragement and support,” McRae said. “We felt that for them to be able to do an art project offered them encouragement to their self-esteem and importance as third graders.”
Francis Marion third-grade teacher Kedra King said, “They had a sense of pride about what they were doing. It was good for them to have to turn something into someone other than me, as their homeroom teacher that they see everyday.”
The exhibit’s grand opening brought in over 200 members of the Marion and University of Alabama communities. Families, members of local businesses, teachers, and others came to admire the work of the Francis Marion and Marion Academy third-graders.
Subject matter of the photographs primarily featured family members. But dirt roads, video game consoles, and even one horse are depicted as well, all of which were selected with the help of Honors College photography teachers Chip Cooper and Julio Larramendi.
“The children were really excited and proud to see their work on display,” King added.
McRae said, “It matters for a community to be vulnerable and open with each other. We need to put more into communal support for these kids, who are the future, because when you ask them, ‘What is home?,’ they show their families, they show love, and they showed a lot of feelings of community.”
The Smith Building Art Gallery “Home” exhibit has been open to the public since May 21 and will stay open until near the end of August at 301 Washington Street, Marion. Visitors will be accompanied by Cooper Holmes, a friendly Marion native who will be happy to share details about the exhibit and the town’s history. To learn more about the University of Alabama University Fellows Experience visit https://honors.ua.edu/programs/university-fellows-experience/.