Welcome back to the POP QUIZ! This is a regular, yet totally unexpected, feature where we ask students, parents, staff, our friends, and partners to answer a few questions about what they are learning, reading, and thinking about. Today we feature Nicole Lee, local artist and founder and director of Artists of Color Initiative [formerly Kalamazoo Black Artists Initiative].
A graduate of Kalamazoo Public Schools, Nicole was tapped by Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo (CIS) to create a piece of artwork to commemorate the late Mrs. Dorothy P. Young on her 2021 Diether Haenicke Promise of Excellence Award. That Mrs. Young served as Nicole’s former principal when she attended Hillside Middle School makes the soon-to-be unveiled artwork that much more meaningful.
Last month, we met up with Nicole over Zoom.
Alright, Nicole Lee: pencil out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck.
As a KPS graduate and now as a KPS parent, you have many ties to Kalamazoo Public Schools. What schools did you attend?
I attended Woodward for kindergarten, then Oakwood [closed in 2004] for first grade, then MLK, and Hillside Middle School. I graduated from Kalamazoo Central High School and just this May my daughter graduated from there as well. We are a blended family so we still have two children in Kalamazoo Public Schools.
Thinking over your years in Kalamazoo Public Schools, do you have a favorite teacher?
Mrs. Osborn. She was my elementary teacher in fourth grade. She’s since retired. Mrs. Osborn played a major role in my education. She was sweet and patient and stern. She showed care in her method of teaching. She also cared about me. I’ve always been an artsy kind of kid. Sometimes people look at creative people as different. She saw me.
And I had this math teacher at Hillside that I really liked. She made math really fun even though that was my worst subject ever. We did math basketball and different types of fun math activities.
When you graduated from Kalamazoo Central, did you pursue your interest in art right away?
Originally, when I was still in high school, I was sought out to play fast pitch softball at WMU. Both my mom and coach had played slow pitch softball. But plans changed when I became a teen mom. I was seven months pregnant when I graduated high school. Aneah was born that August after graduation. So the first several years I focused on being a mom. Then I decided I didn’t want to be labeled another statistic. I also had a burning sensation to do more with my creative ability, so I started cosmetology school in ’96. I graduated and started working in the field. While I was good at it, I decided that wasn’t what I ultimately wanted to do.
I kept working, though, to provide for my daughter. At the same time, I began researching schools for art and fashion design. I started attending Illinois Institute of Art but then later returned to Michigan. I applied and started attending WMU’s [Western Michigan University] fashion program. I was also working in retail and not getting home until after nine at night. That was hard on me and our family … In 2011, I received a financial aid notice informing me there was no more money. That meant I couldn’t go to school as I had no means to pay out-of-pocket.
At the back of mind, I really wanted to finish what I’d started. For two reasons. Number one, I wanted to be an example to my kids, to let them know that what you start, you should finish. Two, art has always been a passion of mine. Expressing myself creatively has always been in me. Those two reason were my drive to return to school. So I paid for my classes, taking them one at a time. I just finished up this past May at Western.
Congratulations! Quite an accomplishment to juggle motherhood, school, your own art projects, and go on to start a nonprofit arts organization!
Thanks. And along the way, I’ve also developed a passion for mental health. Art and mental health may seem in totally different spectrums but there is much overlay … So in college, when I discovered art therapy, I incorporated that into my general studies degree. I recently applied and learned I was accepted into Wayne State University’s Art Therapy program.
Congratulations yet again!
Thanks! So I’m still chugging away …
What are you currently reading?
I like downloading motivational videos in the morning before starting the day. I’ve been listening to Eric Thomas & Iyanla Vanzant recently. Iyanla’s message for this morning was stop second guessing yourself.
What’s your favorite word or phrase right now?
It’s on my graduation stole. My only talent is that I believe in myself so much that I just don’t quit.
Behind every successful student is a caring adult. Who has been one of your caring adults?
Ms. [Dorothy] Young! She was motherly and caring. In middle school, I ended up going through a rebellious period. I didn’t want to go to school and I didn’t express to my parents all that was going on. I got seven referrals in one week. Or maybe it was one day! [She laughs.] Ms. Young pulled me into her office. She wanted to know what was going on with me. I was just shrugging my shoulders and she said I’m calling your aunt—she had worked at Hillside, so Ms. Young knew her. I told her not to call my aunt as she was tough, but she did so anyway. That’s probably why she called her! My aunt came to the school and gave me a few choice words and it was what I needed to hear.
Ms. Young’s care stuck with me and how she said I needed to straighten up. You knew when she was serious and what her expectations for you were and that she expected you to know and follow the rules.
Speaking of Mrs. Young, where are you at in the creative process with this work commemorating her on her 2021 Diether Haenicke Promise of Excellence Award?
I’m just touching it up. Putting on some final touches.
What medium are you using?
It’s a 16 x 20 digital art piece.
What else can you tell us about the piece? Have you titled it yet?
I do not have a title for it. I can tell you there are a few hidden messages in her portrait. For instance, you’ll find yellow in her skin tone, and blue in the background representing her sorority, Sigma Gamma Rho.
Also, the red and white in the piece represent Hillside Middle School. There is a book in front of her with an eagle on a page. The eagle is Hillside’s mascot and is holding a ribbon with the word “excellence” on it, referencing the Diether award she received from CIS.
We can’t wait to see it! … In addition to your own work as an artist, you are the founder and director of the Artists of Color Initiative which lifts up the work of Black artists, artists of color. Giving their work a platform for which to speak about important matters that impact us all, like gun violence, makes us a stronger, more informed community. Is that how would you describe your new organization?
That is part of our mission. To lift up not just Black artists but all artists of color. The other part is to change narratives by networking artists with businesses so they can gain artistic opportunities. Art communicates to everyone.
Changing narratives reminds me of the interview you did with Second Wave Media. You were asked your thoughts on how Kalamazoo has been changed by the pandemic, Black Lives Matter, and issues of inequality. You said that you and your organization have learned that “in order to fix problems or change narratives of the past that we have to work together as a community. It’s not the task of one individual, but the task of many. In order to achieve those tasks we have to educate and be receptive in the eyes of one another.”
Your response really resonated for me because that’s what we do at CIS, work to change narratives when it comes to kids and education. No one organization can do it alone and that’s why we depend upon others to join with us in the work.
What we both do is healing work. And I believe art is a powerful tool for change.
Our time is just about up. We didn’t get a chance to talk much about the wearable art you create.
I’m not doing that much anymore. I’ve had to move away from my customizing work to focus on the arts organization.
Anything else we should know about you?
The one thing I don’t have on my side is time. I’m already in my forties. I’m not a traditional student. Because of that, I felt the need to develop a strategy process. After some discussions and some research, I learned people have a stigma against therapy. With those stigmas in mind, I decided to first establish myself as an artist in our community to lower the initial resistance to receiving therapy services with me. When I eventually become credentialed as an art therapist, I want people to see me not so much as a therapist but as an artist. I think this will help people be more receptive of my efforts. My ultimate goal is healing.
Thank you, Nicole, for hanging out with us at Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids.
[We’ll share photos from the upcoming unveiling of Nicole’s work on the CIS Facebook page so stay tuned!]
Tags: Artists of Color Initiative, arts as healing, CIS, Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo, Diether Haenicke Promise of Excellence Award, Hillside Middle School, Kalamazoo Black Artists Initiative, Kalamazoo Public Schools, Mrs. Dorothy P. Young, Nicole Lee