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Spotlight: UI junior helps students take art to the street

BY MOLLY IRENE OLMSTEAD | MARCH 22, 2011 7:20 AM

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UI junior Erica Tuke comes from Evanston, Ill., where she often traveled through Chicago on the El, staring at the graffiti on the buildings, seeing crouched people in hoodies and dark clothes with cans of spray paint.

When she was a senior in high school, her parents bought her a membership pass to the Art Institute in Chicago, and she roamed the modern and contemporary wings frequently. But her greatest influence came from looking at the graffiti on buildings and from her peers in high-school art classes who practiced scribbling tags in their sketchbooks.

Now, Tuke is a graffiti artist who uses wheat paste — a mixture of sugar, flour, and water — to adhere large photographs to abandoned and “off the beaten path” buildings of Iowa City. In an effort to inspire other artists, she’s teaching younger kids from Iowa City the art of graffiti as well.

“I think for an artist, it’s really important to look beyond the canvas,” Tuke said. “Looking at the whole world around you … it’s amazing. You have absolutely everything to work with.”

A mockup of one of her wheat pastes was propped against a support pillar in the basement of North Hall. A group of high-school students sat around a table in front of the graffiti March 10, smashing globs of clay against the table. The gray lumps in their hands will be transformed into street-art pieces to be displayed around Iowa City.

Tuke is enrolled in the methods of secondary art-education class taught by UI art-education Associate Professor Rachel Williams. In an after-school program, Tuke and a group of other art-education majors teach high-school students from the Iowa City area about street art.

“Erica is one of the best students I’ve had,” Williams said. “She teaches them to appreciate that art really is here, that they’re surrounded by art. As high-school students, kids might not see that because it’s so ubiquitous, but Erica can show them that art is everywhere and anybody can create it.”

As the students passed around volumes of photographs of graffiti art, Tuke helped them go “beyond the books.” Instead of keeping their art on the paper, they have the opportunity to put it out in the world.

“In public school, they stick to the basics like how to draw a straight line,” Tipton High freshman Alivia Winters said. “But here, we get to do a lot more. We get to learn about what different kinds of art there are and that it’s more than just what we think of as normal.”

Tuke has wheat-pasted a photo of the body of an obese old man, wearing polka dot boxers, a saggy tank top, and knee socks, topped with the head of Michelangelo’s David.

“In the art program, I’ve definitely learned a lot more about appr-eciating and understanding art as more than a painting or a sculpture, or even as just as visual form,” she said. “I understand now that it expands to music, performance, writing. Everything around you is art.”

This aspect of keeping an open mind is one of the most important messages she wants to tell her students, Tuke said. Learning to continually accept new forms of art played into her decision to be an art education major instead of strictly being an artist.

“Being a teacher, you can always be in the contemporary and always, no matter what, keep learning,” she said. “That’s what’s going to advance your students, when you yourself keep learning from the world and never stop. I’ve learned to never put my blinders on.”


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