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After-school art club inspired by trading cards of influential women

During Women’s History Month, moviegoers and others could stop by the small gallery at the Kentucky Theatre to see an exhibit of oversized trading cards designed by a Transy student paired with corresponding artwork by an after-school club at Cardinal Valley Elementary. “We learned about many women that were very important in history,” said fifth grader Meidelyn Hernandez, who made a clay figure and a canvas painting of 16th century Irish pirate Grace O’Malley.

Shawna Morton, a senior religion major at Transylvania University, began her project last spring after securing a Kenan grant to feature influential women. “Sometimes people get left out of history and forgotten. It bummed me out that all these great women are great role models and no one knows about them,” she said. “I chose some women who I think deserve the spotlight. Picking the 31 was a challenge.”  

Morton had started dabbling in art her freshman year, drawing and painting in her spare time. For this project, she researched the 31 women (one for each day of March) and created digital art using Adobe Illustrator. One side of each card shows a portrait, while the back includes a description of the woman’s accomplishments and impact. Morton visited Cardinal Valley in the fall and gave each art club member a deck, much like baseball trading cards. “They were so excited to have something in their hands to learn about,” she said, noting, “They could possibly see themselves doing amazing things someday.”

A Michigan native, Morton had connected with Cardinal Valley art teacher Michelle Armstrong through mutual acquaintances on the Transy faculty who promote community art projects such as “Unlearn Fear and Hate.” Armstrong welcomed the opportunity for her after-school club, which includes about 20 fourth and fifth graders who meet twice a month on Thursdays. “The kids selected one of the women they felt a connection with,” Armstrong explained. Most painted on canvas, but a few opted to draw with colored pencils or to fire and glaze clay figures.

Just days before the downtown exhibition opened, 11-year-old Yureily Escobar Gomez wrapped up her portrait of American astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, whose shirt featured celestial bodies. “It was interesting learning about someone who likes stars,” said Yureily, who had also fashioned a flat portrait in clay, mounted in a picture frame. Meanwhile, classmate Yael Leal Neri finished a tribute to Nora Baker, a British spy in World War II who inspired him.

“They’ve at least learned about the one they selected and created a work of art about. Hopefully they’ve also learned there are a whole lot of people in the world who do important things that don’t always get recognized,” Armstrong said as the youngsters grappled with needle nose pliers and screw eyes to wire their canvases.

Morton picked up the children’s artwork the next day to deliver it to the gallery. “I am very impressed,” she said. “The talent was beyond my imagination. They’re very bright, very talented kids.”