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Student's virtual art exhibition confronts challenges in education system

Capstone exhibition
This sculpture, entitled "Deliverance from Darkness," highlights the instant Helen Keller's teacher, Annie Sullivan, brought her out of darkness by signing "water" into her palm as water flowed over it. Lehnert said she chose this moment to show how Sullivan never gave up on reaching her student. Lehnert's own hands, cast in bronze, represent Sullivan's, and her friend's young daughter's hands, cast in cement, represent Keller's.

Jennifer Lehnert entered the teaching profession to inspire young children to love learning and improve their lives. The deep emotional distress she felt when she gave up her dream is reflected in her Master of Arts in Humanities with Studio Arts Concentration capstone exhibition entitled, "Education: Idealized, Never Realized, " accessible virtually through Dec. 11.

"I got my bachelor's degree from University of Houston-Clear Lake and received my teaching certification," Lehnert said. "I believed I had a unique perspective, because my internship was in a first-grade class and my own son was a first grader. I had loved my training and I truly believed in what I'd learned, but what I saw in the actual classroom was jarring and starkly opposite to what I had been taught."

She said she'd learned that teachers should be loving and nurturing and that their job was to meet each child's needs. "Everything I learned was destroyed by my son's experience in first grade. In my classes I was learning one way, but his reality was something completely different," she said. "Emotionally, this was stunning to me. His struggles in class were playing out in a way diametrically opposed to what I was learning in terms of how to teach children. I couldn't believe that all the wonderful things I was learning weren't what was happening in my son's classroom."

Further, she said, she'd taken a long-term substitute teaching position in a second-grade classroom. "I barely made it through that," she said. "It was emotionally devastating to me. I thought teachers were there to make a positive impact on kids. The teachers I worked with didn't seem to be committed to the best interest of the kids at all."

Devastated, Lehnert turned to her passion for drawing and art to express her emotions. "Whenever I hit a rough patch in life, I always would sit down and draw it out. It was healing for me," she said. "I decided I'd give up on teaching, and go back to UHCL and get my master's degree. This exhibition is part of my therapy."

She explained that all 27 sculptures in the exhibition spotlight different elements of a struggle she encountered. "Each one represents a wall of pain and betrayal I hit," she said. "One piece stands out to me — a head without a top that is empty inside."

That piece is inspired by a Hebrew saying, Lehnert said. "'A child is not a vessel to be filled. Rather, a child is a lamp to be lit.' In other words, we want kids to love learning, not just cram them full of information. That was the piece I started with. I made an 'empty vessel' head, and its counterpart is a full child's head that is lighted from the inside shining through the irises."

Those two contrasting pieces set her on the path for the rest of her exhibition. "The ideas started coming so fast, I couldn't sleep," she said. "I had an idea and a contrast to represent the difference between what I was told in my own training and the reality I faced in the classroom. I just could not find a way to resolve those differences."

Her exhibition, said Lehnert, is a "call to action. I hope my art can reach someone who can do something about these things," she said.

"Jennifer Lehnert's capstone exhibition presents a powerful commentary of her views regarding education in this country and the state of Texas," said UHCL's Cultural Arts Director Eric Despard. "Her use of various media to communicate her ideas through symbolism and archetypical forms provide an opportunity for viewers to engage in thoughtful conversation and reflection. The Department of Cultural Arts is proud to support this virtual exhibition through the UHCL Art Gallery."

The event is free and open to the public. Visit Jennifer Lehnert's capstone exhibition online.