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The students of Crestview Elementary find ways to express their identity through art.

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Last year, residents of Crestview — a culturally and ethnically diverse community in Henrico County — were worried about changes taking place in their neighborhood. Gumenick Properties, which had built a housing community there in the 1940s, was in the midst of redeveloping the area — meaning higher rent for many of the immigrant and refugee families. The redevelopment would eventually cause many of the families to move.

But a part of that community will always live on — in the form of an exhibition at Virginia Commonwealth University's Anderson Gallery opening Thursday, June 1, and in a book featuring the same works, both titled "I Am."

The exhibit's artists are fourth- and fifth-graders from Crestview Elementary School. From paintings to poetry to movies and photographs, the students experimented with various means of expressing themselves with help from the nonprofit group Art 180. Marlene Paul and Kathleen Lane started Art 180 more than a year ago with a twofold mission — to give children a chance to find their own voices and to find a way for their voices to be heard in the community, Paul says.

The pair enlisted the help of area artists to teach their craft for Project Crestview. Michele Surat, a writer and teacher at the Governor's School, taught writing. Jay Paul (Marlene's husband) taught photography. Diego Sanchez taught painting and drawing. And James Parrish, Christopher Hibbe and Jennifer Hill taught filmmaking.

Angela Walker, outreach coordinator at the Tuckahoe YMCA, which worked with Art 180 on Project Crestview, says the project has had a positive effect. "Our program is very diverse," she says. "Children could talk about coming from mixed families or coming from other countries." One child wrote about being black and white, while another wrote about having two fathers.

Surat, who taught writing, says the project really helped the children learn about themselves. "Here they had permission to have fun, and no one's coming after them with a red pen," she says. "There are some places where writing is a punishment. A writer paints with words. They really got a sense of ownership."

The exhibition, running through June 18, will feature poems, paintings and portraits by the Crestview kids. Video monitors will continuously run the one-minute 8 mm films each student shot. At the opening, to help celebrate the diversity of the students, food will be served from several different ethnic restaurants around town. Members of local band One Ring Zero, Josh Camp and Michael Hearst, will perform.

When the exhibition is finished, Richmonders will still have a chance to see the children's handiwork. Most of the collection will be featured in the book "I Am," aptly named in commemoration of the unique identity of each young artist. Initially, Paul and Lane hope to sell the book at area bookstores and specialty shops for $20, although nothing has been confirmed yet. The ultimate goal is to find a publisher to distribute it nationally.

Crestview was chosen because, "We hoped to tie it in with the fact that this community was so unique because there are so many immigrants here," Jay Paul says. "The main purpose of Art 180 is to come up with a program to give children a voice through art. With art, you can express yourself and document what's around you. They'd say 'I can't write' or 'I can't take photos.' Once you work with them a while, they realize they can do it."

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