Photos by Scott Buschman
Ben Stanton believes that life is art, and art is life. So it’s no wonder that he considers skateboards, shoes, bag lunches, T-shirts and the schoolyard to be canvases for his young artists at Davis Middle School in Compton.
For many youngsters in this low-income community, Stanton’s class is their introduction to art. However, students frequently tell him not to expect much, because they are not artistic.
“The word ‘artist’ can sometimes stop people,” says Stanton, a member of Compton Education Association. “My job is just getting kids to try to believe in themselves.”
It works. Little by little his students become more confident as they get in touch with their creative side, and become amazed at their abilities. Several have even sold their artwork.
“I believe the arts and creativity are a means of transformation, and society needs to invest in it.”
—Ben Stanton, Compton Education Association
Stanton was named “Lifechanger of the Year” in 2016-17, selected from more than 720 teachers, administrators and school employees nominated nationwide. He received a $3,000 prize from National Life Group, which sponsors the competition.
He was honored for implementing six initiatives: grassroots fundraising to pay for his school’s art studio; partnering with nonprofits and corporations to create unique art projects for students; promoting student philanthropy; partnering with museums for educational field trips; developing “circle painting” mural projects to promote teambuilding; and bringing local and international artists into his classroom to enhance learning.
“I believe the arts and creativity are a means of transformation, and society needs to invest in it,” says Stanton, a Compton teacher for 11 years. “I raise money for my classes, because we receive nothing for supplies. Everything has either come from my own personal funds or donations. Sometimes we do fundraisers with restaurants donating a portion of their proceeds for an evening.
Stanton partnered with Bridge to Skate, a nonprofit that builds skate parks and schools in Honduras, and together they created the Compton Plywood Project. Used skateboard decks were donated to serve as a canvas for students’ custom artwork. Stanton reached out to corporations including Vans, Jack’s Surf Shop and Active, which provided prizes for an exhibit and sale of student-painted skateboards, with students donating a portion of their proceeds to charities of their choice. The artwork proved so popular that Stanton continues to help students sell skateboards on Instagram. (To view student art visit #comptonplywoodproject.)
In another project, Stanton partnered with Shuzz, a nonprofit that brings water, medical supplies and shoes to impoverished countries including Haiti, Jamaica and Cuba. For the past three years Shuzz has sponsored an art poster contest for Stanton’s students, and the winning entry is used to promote the organization’s back-to-school campaign and banquet.
Another joint effort is with the Brown Paper Bag Project, a nonprofit that provides sack lunches to the homeless in Los Angeles. Students decorated the paper bags with motivational messages and custom artwork. One bag states, “Sometimes you have to fall before you fly.” Another bag reminds the recipient, “Every day is a blessing.” The hope is that homeless individuals will find inspiration in knowing that students care about them.
Some artwork on the bags was so outstanding that Stanton plans on using some of his award money to purchase a screen machine to print the images on T-shirts.
Stanton is one of 25 teachers in the Los Angeles area to have a partnership with the Museum of Contemporary Art, The Broad, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. This allows his students to go on field trips to the museums and continue classroom curriculum in a setting where they can discuss, critique and interpret art on display. He also spearheaded the circle painting project on campus. This team-building event with faculty, students and the community was a collaborative experience while producing artwork that brightens the school and reflects its core values.
Stanton has invited local and international artists to visit students, including a clothing designer discussing branding, a woodworking artisan sharing wood shop activities, and a lesson on woodcarving by a Jamaican artist via Skype.
“I love this class,” says eighth-grader Xitali Inguez. “Through art, people can show others who they are in a nice way. With so much testing, it’s a relief to have art class. It’s a great way to relieve stress and something I look forward to.”
Classmate Adrian Sanchez recalls that in the beginning, he thought he couldn’t create art, but now sees otherwise.
“Mr. Stanton motivates us to keep going and refine our work,” Sanchez says. “He also gives us an opportunity to make money.”
Stanton taught fourth grade for nine years before the opportunity to teach art to middle school students became available.
“Art is my passion,” he says. “I love how students can enrich their lives through being involved in the creative process, and how when that happens they become more confident in themselves. Every single day I am grateful.”
Stanton’s commitment to creating a nurturing environment where self-expression is encouraged has helped students cope with personal struggles. One student confided that art class saved his life by helping him develop confidence and a sense of purpose.
The students have had an equally positive impact on his life, says Stanton.
“Winning the award happened during the most difficult time of my life. My brother, who was my best friend, had tragically passed away, and I had to take a leave because I was in a car accident at the same time. I had to get well physically and emotionally.
“The kids were there for me. They wrote me letters and helped with the nomination. We are truly family. When I was nominated, I told them I would accept the award on their behalf.”
Stanton begins each class by forming a circle with students, who together recite hip hop’s four principles: Peace, Love, Unity, and Having Fun. Then the young artists get to work, focusing intently on their projects, because art may be fun but it’s also serious business.
“For me, the most rewarding part of the job is when one of my students realizes he or she has an undiscovered gift,” Stanton muses. “When that happens, I feel just like a kid at Disneyland. It’s the most awesome thing there is.”