CVPA students and alumni use art to heal a year after the shooting
Central Visual and Performing Arts High School alumnus Traydon Rogers poured his heart out into his poem “Creative Memories” after student Alexzandria Bell and teacher Jean Kuczka died in a shooting a year ago today.
“I remember the halls that hold the spirits of serenity seeping with a crafting of creativity upon the stones of individuality, the boulders of inner brutality and bliss,” Rogers wrote in the poem. “These memories move me, moving the hearts of those that unfold their vulnerability.”
Rogers, who graduated in 2020, said putting his thoughts in writing helped him cope.
“The poem really went into not forgetting the good of Central Visual Performing Arts High School and also honoring those that were unalived during the event,” Rogers said in an interview. “It was both a tribute to [who I became] while being there, as well as to help those who experienced it and to show a sense of, we're all in this together.”
The shooting one year ago today left many CVPA students and teachers and those at nearby Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience dealing with immeasurable grief. Many students are reluctant to speak about it publicly.
But CVPA alumni understand what they’re going through and have produced art that reflects their attempt to handle the grief.
“A lot of what cannot be explained with feeling with complex emotions finds its way to be able to be expressed in something that's like it, which is art, which is poetry and dance,” Rogers said.
Rogers’ poem is one of many works produced in the aftermath of the shooting. Businesses helped display artwork from students. Since June, Tower Grove South restaurant MoKaBe’s Coffeehouse has used part of its space to showcase the works of about 15 CVPA students for its Post Traumatic Healing gallery.
Some students wanted to send a message to legislators. A painting by a CVPA freshman includes an American flag showing the stripes as blood with bullet holes in place where the stars would be, a depiction of Lady Liberty and a list of other school shootings.
The students are able to open up and share their true feelings through their art, CVPA arts teacher Kelly Terry said.
“The kids are all doing all this completely,” Terry said. “I'm supporting them, I'm helping them, I'm guiding them, but they're choosing to do all these little ways in which they’re healing.”
But, many students are still reserved and find the shooting difficult to talk about.
“I think the kids feel like it's almost taboo to talk about, like they almost feel like they have to keep it hush-hush a little bit,” Terry said. “If it is brought up, who will that trigger versus like, who needs to release it and let it heal.”
“I think healing with 400 people in the same trauma but kind of experiencing traumas, and those triggers in different ways is really chaotic, and I think we've done a really good job as a team," Terry added.
Earlier this year, students gathered in the school auditorium to dance and sing in tribute to Kuczka and Bell, who was a dancer at the school.
St. Louis Story Stitchers, a nonprofit aimed at violence prevention, held events to reach out to students and boost morale. Many of its members and leaders are CVPA students or alumni, and while grieving over what happened there, they were hit with another tragedy after another CVPA alumnus and Story Stitchers member, Trevor Brantley, died in April.
The string of violence left many members confused and finding ways to cope, said CVPA graduate and Story Stitchers Youth Artistic Coordinator Branden Lewis.
“They weren't just speculating how someone would feel,” Lewis said. “For a few of them, this was seemingly their first time genuinely taking actual raw emotion and transforming it into an art.”
Lewis said alumni turned to dance. He and others released music in the months following the shooting and Brantley’s death. Others used podcasting as a creative outlet. Stitchcast Studio, the organization’s inhouse podcast, hosted three episodes on how to heal from the shooting with activist and storyteller Cheeraz Gorman.
The podcast also helped Emeara Burns, a youth, recruitment and engagement specialist for Story Stitchers, talk through her feelings.
“I was like I don’t know how to feel about the school that I went through, going through that tragedy,” said Burns, who had Kuczka as a teacher. “So being able to just sit down, slow down, and actually have people to help me to walk through those thoughts and kind of get through those thoughts, I think was another form of art because sometimes, words are what we need to get us through what sometimes actions can't.”
Burns said Bell and Kuczka will always be remembered. Years from now, she hopes people also remember the school for the students’ art.
“Mark my words, [CVPA] will not be known for what it is known for right now,” Burns said. “It will not be like that forever. Mark my words.”