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A Gift of Beauty and Education


Marcel Proust is not on the reading list for Michael Javier's students. Dead French novelists don't figure into ESL classes at Evans Community Adult School.

But Proust could have been writing about them: "Only through art can we get outside of ourselves and know another's view of the universe."

Javier knows that. His dream--of an art gallery at Evans--has just come true. In a once-empty cafeteria foyer, student art hangs where students used to post notices for used cars and mattresses.

Some are first-time artists. Others once were artists in their homelands, but now are janitors or dishwashers.

This is people's art. Colorful papier-mache masks. Pastel T-shirts that bear legends of coming to America "with only the shirt on my back."

With immigrant-bashing rampant, Javier says, "People need to hear their stories, to learn what our students have gone through."

Javier, 33, an artist himself, is a can-do sort who in 1988 fled the relative complacency of Reseda High for Evans, on the fringe of Downtown. Here, at any given time, the 10,000 students may come from 60 countries.

Although rich in diversity, it is a poor school, with no money for art classes. Javier kept thinking about how important it is for these students to have beauty in their lives and how art spans cultural borders.

From time to time he'd have students do art in ESL classes and would tape their work up in what is now the gallery. Always, it would fall to the floor to be trampled.

On a campus where "they can't even afford custodians," he knew there was no way he was going to get start-up money for a proper gallery.

He went to work. Cleaning out his closets, he found some old frames, which he sold to another teacher for $100. That would buy canvases and paint.

Other teachers brought in items for sale. A campus beautification fund yielded $100 for painting the gallery walls and student Cervantes Morales donated the labor.

Students gave nickels and dimes. At Pier 1, Javier bought 50 pairs of 98-cent earrings and sold them at a small profit.

"He's Mr. Creativity," says ESL teacher Al Atwood, whose heat transfer press turned out Evans T-shirts to benefit the fund. He wanted this gallery. In his class of so-called slow learners, he has one "who can draw like Michelangelo."

"We got it open with probably less than $600," Javier says. This month's unveiling was a celebration, complete with ice sculptures from the Evans kitchen.

The enthusiasm appears contagious. When Javier's students are asked how they feel about their teacher, their gallery, the applause is spontaneous: "Excelente!" They speak of the camaraderie of learning about one another.

In one class, everyone made a mask. "I showed them some pictures, sort of Picassoesque, and just let them go," Javier says.

Lupita Enciso, from Mexico, says her mask is "kind of like a reflection of myself, two different personalities." In class, she is very serious. But "I like to sing. I like to dance."

Rhina Zepeda, a pretty young woman from El Salvador, giggles and says she painted her face: "It was almost like I was making up."

Another piece in the show is a big outline of the United States on which are superimposed students' recollections of their first day in America. They tell of feeling as helpless as children, unable to speak. They describe their awe at the creature comforts, the freedom.

Javier can relate to strangers in a strange land. He was born in Los Angeles, but he has Portuguese, Filipino, Spanish and Chinese blood. At UCLA, where he majored in English literature, he always felt in cultural "limbo-land."

Art in ESL classes makes perfect sense to him--a way to teach new words. Brush, glue, paint.

Art field trips have proved an eye-opener to him and his students. One told him: "I didn't know I could go here. I thought this area was only for white people." They were at the Museum of Contemporary Art, a 10-minute walk from Evans.

Scrounging money, Javier plans ongoing workshops where students will create art for the gallery. Exhibits will change monthly, sometimes tying in to ethnic holidays. Guest artists will also be invited to exhibit.

Evans Principal Francis Marsala--the son of Sicilian immigrants--is a booster. He knows that good English means better jobs, but "the way to the soul is through the arts." At Evans, "all the cultures of the world are rubbing up against each other and there's peace and harmony. There's hope, you know."

To Mexican immigrant Felipe Malagon, one of the mask makers, art is one way in which "we can communicate who we are to the wider community, so they will treat us as people instead of objects."

Evans Adult School is at 717 N. Figueroa St. The gallery is open from 7:30 a.m. to 9:15 p.m. Monday-Thursday, and from 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Fridays.

Triumph of the Spirit

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