Ellington Students ‘Experience the Unexpected’ at Corcoran School

D.C. arts high school seniors showcase their visual art projects in Corcoran gallery spaces.

The opening of "Experience the Unexpected." Photo by Brian Nielsen.
May 13, 2015
That was a common refrain among high school seniors from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts as they described seeing their work on display at one of Washington’s most iconic galleries: the Corcoran. 
“The Corcoran is a place I took field trips to as a kid, but I never thought I’d actually show work here,” senior Hakeem Olayinka said.
Because the arts high school is in the process of renovating its campus, it turned to its longtime partner, the George Washington University, to find a space for its end-of-the-year senior exhibition. GW allowed the school to use two rooms on the third floor of the Corcoran’s 17th Street building for “Experience the Unexpected,” a show that opened to the D.C. community last Friday. 

Art by Nyla Weaver (left) and Sequoia Lucas (right).Photo by Brian Nielsen.

Showing work at the Corcoran is a feat for any artist. It is an even more impressive accomplishment when the artists are in their teens. Teacher Melchus Davis and visual arts Chair Mike Easton explained that public exhibitions are in line with the Ellington School’s mission of helping students develop their own ideas while exposing them to post-secondary education.

“Showing at the Corcoran gave our students the opportunity to experience what it’s like to exhibit in a space like that and what it’s like to interact with the public,” Mr. Easton said.

The work in “Experience the Unexpected” took about a year to put together. Mr. Easton and Mr. Davis guided seniors as they brainstormed different subjects they wanted to tackle. When Eric Jones wanted to use abstract art to explore the LGBT community, Mr. Davis pointed him toward Henry Matisse and Wassily Kandinsky for inspiration. Alexis Thompson wanted to blend her love of fashion and art, so another teacher helped her come up with the idea of using recycled shopping bags in her work.

The final pieces make up “Experience the Unexpected,” a vibrant collection of chromatic paintings, photographs, drawings and other artworks from graduating seniors.

Some of the stories shared on the walls are deeply personal and required students to tap into intimate parts of their own lives. Idania Alvarado, a native of El Salvador, dedicated her paintings to her heritage and her community’s struggles with immigration. Maude Njoku's grandfather is a birdwatcher, so she channeled his love of avian creatures to make the delicate watercolors and drawings for her series.

Paintings by Idania Alvarado. Photo by Brian Nielsen.


David Shelton produced powerful graphite- and watercolor-sketches that depict mental illness and neurological diseases. The striking images allowed him to explore his interest in psychology and think more about what he wants to do in the future.

“I either want to go into art education to teach students how to unlock their creative element or become an art therapist trying to help people get through things,” he said. “It’s hard for people to figure out how to get through the healing process, but I feel like one way to get your expression out is through visual arts.”

Mr. Easton added that the show could not have come together without the support from the George Washington University, Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions Brittney Stephenson and Charles Barber, president of the school’s board of directors and deputy general counsel at GW.

Art by Paul Fay. Photo by Brian Nielsen.


The partnership between GW and the Ellington School does not stop with the exhibition. GW will continue its ties with the institution by inviting Ellington seniors to a reception in the City View Room Wednesday evening. Seniors will have an opportunity to talk to college artists from the Corcoran School and, following the reception, will visit the Corcoran’s NEXT exhibition.

It also will be an opportunity for Ellington seniors like Makyah Scott to check out their own work in the gallery again. Ms. Scott’s work on domestic violence cemented her interest in art. 

“The project actually made me want to keep doing this. It opened in my mind and helped me let out some feelings, so it’s definitely something I want to continue to do,” she said.

“Experience the Unexpected” is on display until May 18.