WHITINGHAM — Behulum Mengistu might be in a different country but he seemed right at home in an art class at Twin Valley High School last week.
Who better than an international graffiti artist with a background in T-shirts and stickers to provide feedback to a screen printing class?
“We’re using this as an opportunity to have him come half way across the world, over the ocean,” Meghan Rigali, art educator at Twin Valley Middle and High School, said while students were at work designing T-shirts that speak to contemporary issues.
Junior Grace Rizzo’s shirt focused on the initialism LBGTQ, which represents the lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, queer community. That’s an important issue for Rizzo’s group of friends.
“I thought what sort of symbols are there that represent the LBGTQ community and there’s the different gender and sexuality symbols as well as the equals sign,” Rizzo said. “I thought I should somehow combine those two together.”
The shirt is meant to inspire acceptance, as were others in the class.
Sophomore William Florence said he was making a design that dealt with the problem of people being too scared to show others how they truly are.
“So I used an armadillo because it comes up when it’s frightened,” he said.
Freshman Zoey LaCasse’s design showed how a heartbeat looks on an electrocardiogram.
“People are always telling you how to live and so I kind of came up with my own thing,” LaCasse said. “Walk to the beat of your own heart.”
Junior Kimberly Betit took the class because of an interest in pursuing a career in art.
“I’ve always liked it since I was younger,” said Betit.
On being in Vermont, Mengistu said, “It’s nice. It’s warmer than other places. And it’s a beautiful place. I love the trees and everything.”
Mengistu arrived in the Green Mountain State in April and will stay until June. He’s already visited other schools and participated in the Trinity International Hip-Hop Festival in Hartford, Conn.
In Ethiopia, Mengistu works for a non-governmental organization and is managing director of One Love Theater there. Performances involve circus arts, theater, music and gymnastics.
“Meghan came a few months ago,” Mengistu said.
The two artists made a mural in Ethiopia and participated in other projects. At Twin Valley, they were finishing up a “mobile mural” that will travel to different schools in the United States before making its way to the Willowell Foundation Outdoor Sculpture Park in Monkton.
Mengistu stumbled upon graffiti arts when he was taking a martial arts class seven years ago. He said he saw some work in a studio and then a year later, someone else started showing him examples of street art online. Impressed, he began surfing the web himself and experimenting with his own work.
“Over the years, I started doing projects with international artists and I started doing shows,” he said. “I started doing graffiti for hotels, restaurants, t-shirts, then I started traveling. Things changed and I became an international and graffiti artist.”
He admitted he “tagged” private property a couple of times before believing it to be too risky. Plus, he said, he didn’t want to inspire younger artists that way.
To change the mindset around graffiti, Mengistu started a project called Share the Love.
“We go to rough neighborhoods and show the people our work on the computer or phones, and say, ‘This is what we want to do. This is what we want to paint on your walls for free and you guys can come up with the idea,'” he said. “So the community comes up with the idea. They share the love.”
A Facebook page can be found by searching Street Art Graffiti Ethiopia.
Rigali is finishing up a graduate course at Castleton University. The class is made up of art educators who visited schools in Ethiopia and participated in teacher exchanges.
Rigali called the ability to collaborate within classrooms “amazing.”
“Plus, with everything that’s going on in the world today,” she said, “it’s like, OK, we’re all human. We all want the same kind of things, you know. We want to be happy and safe and flourish in the world and have good lives. This is a really key moment where we can connect and maybe melt away some of the fears and concerns that have been rising up.”
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or @CMaysBR.