Flint, MI—It started as a school project.
Carrie Mattern, an English teacher at Carman-Ainsworth High School, gave her senior class an assignment: write a poem inspired by a mural in Flint. Students chose their murals and wrote their words. Some even composed song lyrics or recorded themselves reading their poem.
Usually, projects like this never reach anyone outside of the classroom—but these poems can be read by anyone with a smartphone.
The students’ work is featured in an online, interactive mural gallery called PixelStix, a mobile application used by the Flint Public Art Project to showcase Flint artists.
It works like this: users download the app, scan a plaque located on a mural, and information about the piece will pop up on their screen. And now, so will the students’ poems. The app also functions as a mural map where users can learn about the art without having to visit in person.
“This project has been something I’ve dreamed about when the murals first started going up. It’s always been an important objective for me as an educator to have students write for authentic audiences rather than just me, the teacher. It was also critical that my students create community by writing for, and about, their community,” Mattern said.
It’s been in the making since Oct. 2021, Flint Public Art Project Director Joseph Schipani said.
“Carrie came to me, and I jump at any chance to work with the youth, to get them to be able to creatively look at artwork,” Schipani said, who volunteered his time for the project.
Between Mattern’s three senior classes, students wrote approximately 70 poems.
“I think poetry makes so much sense with the murals because both forms of art are never direct messages; it’s often up to the audiences’ connection and past experiences, what they bring to the art, that shapes their meaning and overall connection to the piece,” Mattern said.
Senior Kameron Motley said he was most inspired by “Fearless,” painted by James Smith. The mural features the bust of a lion contrasted against a bright red and purple background.
“I feel like the purple and red, and the lion really brought some type of emotion, I can’t even describe it,” Motley said. “The entire meaning behind it was fearlessness, and coming from Flint, especially growing up on the north side of Flint like me, being fearless was something you had to learn how to do. So, I felt like it represented me very well.”
His fellow classmates were similarly inspired.
“Students were drawn to different pieces based on what they were dealing with at the time, their own interpretation of the art, and even if it was close to their homes or not. We worked for an entire Semester reading, analyzing, critiquing, and writing the final poems. Most students had pages of drafts and lists and revisions,” Mattern said.
Schipani said the experience reminded him of how insightful young adults can be.
“The poems are very powerful…. We think of high school kids as kids. And we forget how much they absorb, and how much they can express what they absorb,” he said.
His hope is that when others read their poems, they learn something.
“There’s so much knowledge inside of those heads. To get a glimpse of what they’re feeling, and what they see, and what they hear, it’s just amazing,” Schipani said, adding that he hopes to continue the program for years to come.
The poems can viewed on PixelStix, a free download on both Android and iOS devices or on the Flint Public Art Project’s website.