For Shawna Morton, 24, a strategic communication master’s student at Michigan State University, her undergraduate years at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, were filled with discoveries of influential women she wished she had learned about earlier.
“During my undergraduate program, I learned about Elinor Ostrom, who was someone who revolutionized economics. I’ve taken an economics course — I hated it — but I was surprised I’d never learned about her before,” she said. “Throughout my four years, it was like I was uncovering all these women who did these amazing things, and I’m like, ‘What’s going on? Why am I hearing about these women for the first time now?’”
Impassioned, she had the idea to take matters into her own hands and teach younger generations about the work of these lesser-known women.
“I wanted to create something colorful and exciting that would be engaging for younger kids, so they could learn about some of these women as role models,” she said. “I was lucky enough to have some great role models in my life that are really strong women, like my mom — she’s got her doctorate in microbiology — and my grandma, who had this career at the county clerk’s office, but not everybody has that. So, it was important to me to kind of spread the wealth and try to share some knowledge with younger generations.”
The result “Fringes,” is a student art exhibit bringing women “out of the fringes and into the spotlight.” Morton partnered with Donley Elementary School in East Lansing, where 95 second- and third-graders created portraits of various influential women from history that are on display at Impression 5 Science Center through March 31.
Morton started the project back in Kentucky while attending school. She created a series of trading cards with hand-drawn portraits on the front and short bios on the back.
“I have 41 trading cards in total that I’ve designed. I try to pick people from different ethnicities, races, backgrounds, areas of expertise, study, et cetera,” she said. “I tried to pick women that are relatively unknown. Women that you might not have heard of before, or if you’ve heard of them, you might not know everything that they’ve done in their lives.”
These include Barbara Jordan, a lawyer, educator, politician and leader of the civil rights movement; Henrietta Leavitt, an astronomer who created a new way to measure stars based on their brightness while working at Harvard University; Junko Tabei, the first woman to climb Mount Everest and the Seven Summits; and Reita Faria, a physician and the first Asian woman to win the Miss World pageant, to name a few.
“Some of my personal favorites are Hedy Lamarr — many people know her as an actress who was known for her beauty, but people don’t know that she also invented things, and it’s because of her that we have Wi-Fi and Bluetooth today. I love the Ella Fitzgerald card, but I’m a big fan of jazz. Some of the most popular are Wilma Rudolph, who was, for a long time, the fastest woman in the world. People really enjoy Tomyris, an Iranian warrior,” she said. “I tried to pick all sorts of different things — I have some pirates, I have scientists, I have a playwright, Lorraine Hansberry, and Madam C.J. Walker, who was an inventor and one of the first billionaire women ever.”
“The first go kind of broke my heart. We got everything up in March of 2020, and it was up for a week — all of their art, all of my art — and then they gave me a call and said, ‘Shawna, I’m sorry, you’ve gotta come get this art, we don’t know when we’re gonna open back up,’” she said. “That was really difficult because I knew how hard the students had worked. I knew how proud they were of their pieces, so I did my best to do a display online, but that was kind of the end of it for a long time.”
She was determined to give the project another chance, however.
“Those kids, they really inspired me. They were so proud of what they accomplished,” she said. “In my head, I was like, ‘I have to do this again. This can’t be where this ends. I want to keep doing it.’”
With backing from the Pope Diversity Fund, which she acquired through MSU, she was able to relaunch the project right here in the Lansing area. She just needed to find a school to partner with.
“I was like, ‘OK, it should be a local school, it should be close to MSU,’ and I was looking for schools that had a mixed background of income, different kids from different demographics,” she said. “I saw Donley — I’d never heard of it, I’d never been there — but they checked some of the things I was looking for, and I just went with them. And I couldn’t be happier that I chose them.”
She said Amy Miros, Donley’s visual arts teacher, was “instrumental” in helping the project come together.
“I just have my 40 cards to pick from, but Amy had some really good ideas to incorporate. She went to the library and grabbed all those ‘Who Was?’ books on women that they had,” Morton said. “Some of the students picked my trading cards to make a design off of, some students came to class with someone in mind, and some students picked from the books.”
Miros also had the students write research papers about the women they chose.
“I think that was really key because the students learned something that excited them, and it really inspired them for the project,” Morton said. “Not just, ‘OK, I’m reading about this, and I’m making a picture,’ but it’s like, ‘Oh, I learned about her early life. I learned about her accomplishments. I learned about where she came from and when she was alive.’ That was awesome, and I think it really changed the project for the better.”
Miros was ecstatic to have her students’ art featured in the community. She even gathered frames for all of the pieces.
“When I saw the art that was being created, I thought, ‘This is beautiful,’ and then I reached out to the community and friends and family through social media, and I had 95 frames donated through an Amazon wishlist,” she said. “So, we ended up getting enough donations to have every piece framed, and the students will be able to keep them in the frames and bring them home.”
Miros said the students surprised her with their passion and creativity, going above and beyond what she expected.
“I learned that my students are capable of doing a lot and making some amazing artwork. Some of them took a more realistic approach, some of them took an animated approach, so it was just kind of neat to see the different styles of portraits that we ended up with,” she said.
“We weren’t sure where it was going to go at first, but when Impression 5 got involved, we got even more excited,” Miros said.
Throughout the project, Morton said she looked “desperately” for a place to hang the art. She considered a few options at MSU, but they had other displays up already.
“One of my coworkers mentioned Impression 5 to me, but I wasn’t feeling entirely optimistic because I was thinking, ‘They’re too big for this little art display,’ she said. “This is such a personal project, and it hadn’t really gotten a lot of attention yet, but they were immediately interested.”
Micaela Balzer, Impression 5’s director of innovation & learning, was thrilled to partner with Donley.
“One of the things that’s really important to Impression 5 is being part of our community, and what better way to be part of a community than making sure the things that they’re very much excited about making and doing are showcased here?” she said. “Beyond just being a science center, we know a lot of people come here to experience that level of community engagement, and highlighting youth art from our local elementary was the perfect connection for us. So, when Shawna reached out to Impression 5, we were like, ‘This is a no-brainer in so many ways.”
Balzer was also excited to have an exhibit that brings guests’ attention to the important accomplishments women have made throughout history, especially during Women’s History Month.
“The main piece of this art is bringing women’s stories to the forefront. So many women have either been erased or not highlighted in the way students learn about history, so for us to support this art was a little bit about community but also thinking about celebrating women’s month and how we highlight women,” she said.
This is Impression 5’s first official art installation, but it’s inspired Balzer to exhibit more art in the future.
“We’re actually doing three months of this now. This is kind of the first one we decided to do. We have a lot of art installed at the science center, but we’ve never had an art opening where art was temporarily here or showcased,” she said. “We don’t know what the expectations are, but we ultimately knew that we wanted families to feel comfortable, we wanted families to be able to take pictures with their youth artists, we wanted them to feel proud of the spaces that their art was represented in. Hopefully, we did OK.”
Morton is more than happy with Impression 5’s contributions to the project.
“It’s been amazing, and they’ve been so helpful. They helped set all the art up, they’ve been helping coordinate things, so it’s really a great partnership all around,” she said.
Overall, she hopes the exhibit opens guests’ eyes to the work of underrepresented women and helps children see that their dreams are attainable with enough hard work and determination.
“I hope that kids at an early age see that no matter where you come from, no matter the circumstances of your life, you can do amazing things. And maybe it’s not the thing that you first pictured, but you can change and adapt and still change the world for the better,” she said. “I’m always so inspired by the kids and their excitement and zest for life, and I just hope people come to this exhibit and realize the amazing accomplishments of women in history, and I hope it inspires them as well.”
So, what’s in store for Morton and the future of the “Fringes” project?
“This is something that I originally wanted to do every year. It takes a lot out of me — just being in my master’s program, it felt a little bit unrealistic, but this time around I’ve learned to ask for help when I need it,” she said. “I would like to continue to go to different schools and make this an annual display, whether that be at Impression 5 or other places. I would like to do as many schools as possible, but it’s hard for me to not want to do it with Donley again because it’s been so awesome.”
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