Back to School: Newark’s Legendary Arts High in the ’70s

September 29, 2023 | Miss Rosen

📷: © Guzman

As the 1960s came to a close, the empire struck back crushing the radical movements of the counterculture. Using both legal and illegal means, the United States government systematically dismantled those on the frontlines of the fight for human rights by infiltrating organizations, jailing revolutionaries, assassinating leaders, and denying basic public services to Black and Brown communities nationwide.

For a young artist coming of age in New York, Constance Hansen forged her own path at Pratt Institute from 1969 to 1971 during the era of Patti Smith’s fabled book, Just Kids. Hansen lived in a $35-a-month apartment on Clermont Avenue in the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn long before it was gentrified. Although they didn’t always have basic amenities like gas, water, and heat, Hansen and her cohort of artists, writers, and poets transformed spaces of unbridled neglect into a bohemian living.

Now one half of the husband and wife photography team Guzman, Hansen has come far since her “banquet years,” their work with everyone from Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love, and Louis Vuitton to Janet Jackson, Total, and Evian on album and magazine covers, billboards and bus stops. Blessed with the perfect mix of subversive humor, timeless style, and saucy insouciance, Hansen and partner Russell Peacock have long been ahead of the curve.

Hansen came to photography at Pratt, and readily embraced the possibilities of the medium at a time when it was largely excluded from the realm of art. Widely accessible, photography lacked pretense much like Hansen herself. “I was naïve,” she says. “I was just documenting my life, whatever I was doing and was in front of me. I realized it was a gift. It was easy for me and I felt like I could do this for the rest of my life.”

Originally enrolled as a sculpture major, Hansen switched over to art therapy, a path with few employment opportunities at the time. After graduating with an art education degree, she got a job at a grade school in Newark where she worked for a couple of years teaching a small class of emotionally disturbed children who had lost their hearing due to an outbreak of rubella.

At the time, Newark had become white America’s scapegoat. The predominantly Black city had been decimated following the five-day Newark Uprising during the long hot summer of 1967 after police arrested, jailed, and beat black cab driver John Smith so brutally, word spread he had been killed. On the night of July 12, hundreds gathered in protest at the Fourth Precinct station, setting a squad car
on fire amidst a hail of rocks and bottles.

After doing nothing for two days, New Jersey governor Richard Hughes deployed the National Guard and 500 state troopers, who joined 1,300 local cops already on the street, who were ordered to use lethal force to quell the revolt — resulting in 26 dead, 15,000 wounded, 1,600 arrested, and $10 million in property damages. The city was wholly abandoned, never to be rebuilt, the people left to fend for themselves for decades to come.

To add insult to injury, Harper’s Magazine made Newark the poster child for “urban blight” in their January 1975 issue, which ranked the country’s 50 largest cities across two-dozen categories. “The city of Newark stands without serious challenge as the worst city of all,” the article concluded.

But that was not the Newark that Hansen knew, on the ground five days a week among the people. By mid-decade she had transferred to Arts High, the very first visual and performing arts high school in the United States. Established in 1931, Arts High School has cultivated local talents that have remade the landscape of art, music, film, theater, and TV for generations with alumni includes jazz legends Sarah Vaughan and Wayne Shorter, Broadway stars Melba Moore and Savion Glover, actors Michael B. Jordan and MJ Rodriguez, and fashion designer Steven Burrows.

“I was teaching photography and illustration to juniors and seniors, where art is a major and just as important as English. Arts High is such an extraordinary school,” Hansen says. “The city was economically challenged, so it as an interested environment right around the school, so it was like a little island of security for these kids. They were so talented and proud. Everybody really wanted to be there so it was this magical experience.”

And most assuredly, Hansen added to the mix with a few enchantments of her very own. Just a few years older than the students, she did not fit the role of teacher from another generation imposing their ideas on the youth, but rather adopted the part of mentor, helping to guide them to their own individual truths both in the classroom and on the streets of their hometown. Taking advantage of the crystal clear light of early mornings, Hansen would take her classes on walkabouts through the city, where the teens could embark on their own adventures in street photography.

“As soon as they came into class, we’d grab our cameras and go walk through different sections of the city for the entire period,” she says. “We also did portrait and still life photography in class; they could also document events at the school. There was music, theater, fashion design and they could take their cameras anywhere they wanted. We had a good darkroom where they were printing their work. Some of the stuff they did was really expressive and creative because it was of their city, their families, friends, and themselves. It was just so intimate.”

As with all public schools in low-income neighborhoods both then and now, Arts High was underfunded but Hansen had already learned the art of making a dollar out of 15 cents. She hit up AGFA for expired photo paper and brought in artists to give talks, even going so far as to mastermind a small photo book production in collaboration with New York’s radical architecture and environmental arts studio, SITE Projects. All those weeks walking the streets had paid off as Hansen worked with the students to explore the landscape of Newark through the lens of public works.

With funding secured from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts, Hansen and the students looked at transportation networks, housing, parks, manufacturing areas, public institutions, and the people that inhabited these spaces, exploring the ways in which photography and book making could be used to engage with their immediate environment.

“The kids were very invested in documenting the city so I was just one of them, one of the kids running around with a camera. I feel very lucky to have had this job because I could just take pictures, and that’s all I wanted to do,” says Hansen. “Since we were close in age and they liked me, there was no hierarchy. We were just working alongside each other making pictures, printing them, and look at them on the wall. It was just wonderful.”

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