CAMDEN, NJ — Two desks down. 

An entire classroom to go. 

With assistance from the Rutgers–Camden Center for the Arts’ Museum Mentorship program, students will take old desks from the basement of Camden’s Brimm Medical Arts High School and turn them into poignant reminders about gun-violence awareness.

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“The idea is for students to not only gain an appreciation for the arts and art museums but to become well-versed in different techniques of art-making and the career roles common to museums,” said Miranda Powell, arts education and community arts program assistant for the Rutgers–Camden Center for the Arts.

“No More Empty Desks” was launched by Camden school nurse and part-time Rutgers lecturer Robin Cogan. She began the art campaign — with the help of Brimm art teacher Lisa Wallenburg — after her family was touched by two mass shooting 70 years apart. 

Cogan is the daughter of Charles Cohen, who narrowly escaped the Howard Unruh shooting spree in Cherry Hill in 1949 by hiding in a closet. The shooting claimed 13 lives. 

In 2018, Cohen’s granddaughter Carly Novell survived the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting - which resulted in 17 deaths - in Parkland, Florida, by also hiding in a closet.

Over 200 Camden schoolchildren from Grades 3-11 will take on the endeavor — etching the old desk backs, arms, legs with an array of colors and messages.

In 2020, Rutgers-Camden enters its second year of a three-year arts education grant from the state.

The grant is working to lead innovative programs at three additional Camden Schools: Thomas H. Dudley Family School, Holy Name School, and U.S. Wiggins College Preparatory Lab Family School.

The “seat transformation” project is one of many initiatives resulting from artists workshops, teacher professional development sessions, and visits to the Stedman Gallery on the Rutgers Camden campus.

Students are expected to unveil their own exhibitions at Stedman and Camden Fireworks in May 2021.

“We wanted to offer a more robust, sequential program, so they could really dig into ideas behind the arts and art exhibitions,” said Noreen Scott Garrity, associate director of education for the Rutgers–Camden Center for the Arts (RCCA).

The Arts Education Special Initiative Grant from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, “gave us the opportunity to do that,” Garrity added.

Wallenburg is also leading classes at Brimm to discuss the power of social justice surrounding the topic of gun violence. 

At Holy Name School, teachers Sister Rosemary Golden, Abby Koetting, and Kara Chase will harken back to ancient times as students plan to submit a cave painting for their installation. 

Wiggins Elementary School students, with the help of teachers Edith Bobb, Tammy Mellon, Ruth Colon, and Brian Gannon, will take more geographic approach by using mapping methods for their artwork

Teachers Raeshell Carter, Brunilda Nieves, and Alisa Ratliff will lead third graders at Dudley Family School to focus on a project that represents students’ vast cultures and identities.

School organizes said students are encouraged to consider and apply different skills to the set pieces and where their own interests may lie.

“Maybe they want to help us build the pedestal that the artwork stands on or curate the exhibition and decide what objects go where,” said Powell. “Some kids may not be art enthusiasts, but they are learning that there is a role that everyone can play here.”

Garrity said that it is important for students to see the project from start to finish - to take note of their own impact. 

“The goal is to bridge the theoretical that they learned last year to an understanding that this project is going to be a reality — an exhibition that people will actually visit,” she said.

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