ST. LOUIS Lawrence Washington stood in front of the painting The
Mississippi inside the St. Louis Art Museum. The 14-year-old didnt
say much, but the image of an African-American family atop the roof
of their house as it is consumed by the churning waters of a flooded
river stuck with Lawrence a month after the visit.
Seeing a black family losing everything, their lives threatened,
with no sign of help, was frustrating. And surprising.
It was only black people up there, Lawrence said last week. It
made black people look kind of bad.
It was the first visit to the museum for Lawrence, who was among
12 eighth-graders from Brittany Woods Middle School in University
City participating in a program that has helped nearly 9,000
students see art in terms of class, gender and race.
The docents arent getting into the history but the emotions (the
works) evoke. The stereotypes, said Tabari Coleman, project director
for the A World of Difference Institute, a part of the Anti-
This is the 14th year the institute has worked with the art
museum for the Concepts of Beauty and Bias program.
It has encouraged junior high and high school students from about
75 schools to discuss stereotypes, bias and discrimination through
art. It also provides the framework for students with sometimes
fragile self-images to see that what is considered attractive has
varied greatly over the years through the eyes of artists.
We try to create a safe environment, so the students bring all of
themselves to the table, Coleman said. Doing so, he said, allows the
students to better understand who they are as well as those around
The painting Lawrence commented on was done by John Steuart
Curry, a white Midwesterner, and completed in the mid-1930s, well
before the Civil Rights movement took hold.
At the time, there was a lot of prejudice toward black people,
docent Gin Wachter told Lawrence and his classmates, all African-
Americans. This artist did not like this.
At that time, she said, rescuers would assist white people first
and let black people fend for themselves, Wachter said. And while
the painting is nearly 80 years old, Monica Black, a facilitator for
the program, said the image was eerily similar to photos of black
families stranded in their homes during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The painting was used as a way to tie the past to the present and
to make the students wonder if the imagery would have been different
had a black artist painted the scene.
A similar discussion was held in front of The Captive Charger, a
19th-century painting by Charles Ferdinand Wimar showing American
Indians with a horse captured from a cavalry officer. The students
said the painting cast the Indians in a negative light.
Student Jermarcus Perkins was convinced that a black person would
have drew the Native Americans being good.
Wachter explained that paintings were often commissioned by
wealthy white people who wanted history captured in a particular
There are about 20 works of art set aside for the tours, selected
to meet the programs theme. But students on the 90-minute tour
seldom have time to see more than half a dozen.
An 11th-century wood sculpture of Guanyin, referred to by Chinese
Buddhists as an enlightened person who understands the secret to
ending human suffering, created the most discomfort for the
students. The figure is dressed in flowing robes and rich jewelry
with a gently smiling face and posed in a great royal ease, as the
museum officially describes it. …