By Dustin Brown
When high schoolers Kimberly Calderon and Aline Mendonca set their eyes on artist Katrin Asbury’s depiction of wild animals making a kill for dinner, their reaction was immediate and visceral.
“I see it as the blacks versus the whites,” said Calderon, a 15-year-old from Flushing, as she pointed to the small wooden figurines showing a pack of light-colored wild cats tearing into a brown antelope.
Although the walls of any gallery will capture the hushed whispers of visitors offering heavy interpretations of the artwork, the opinions of these teenagers carried a bit more weight.
After all, they were the curators.
Calderon and Mendonca are visual arts students at the Frank Sinatra School for the Arts who helped curate the first exhibition for Art in Unexpected Places, which opened Monday night at a gallery on 11th Street in Long Island City.
The program, developed by the Queens Council on the Arts, gave a small group of high schoolers with artistic ambitions of their own a chance to stand on the other side of the process, choosing the artwork that appears in a show instead of creating it themselves.
That task, they learned, is “as important as the art-making itself,” according to 15-year-old Mustaphai Mitchell of Far Rockaway.
“Making an exhibition in itself is an art,” added Aaron Schraeter, 14, of Forest Hills.
Mitchell and Schraeter worked with artist Michael Rakowitz, whose piece filled every square inch of the gallery’s upstairs loft.
Known for his work with scents and atmosphere, Rakowitz diluted Frank Sinatra’s favorite cologne in tubs of water he loaded into three humidifiers, filling the overheated space with the legendary crooner’s distinctive scent.
Although Rakowitz originally wanted to capture the smell of the Sinatra school itself, where all of the junior curators are enrolled as students, the cologne idea won out due to time and monetary constraints.
The show featured the work of three noteworthy Queens artists who teamed up with groups of two or three students to select the piece that would be displayed and to discuss how it should be presented.
“The students were involved in this process of how you review, how you choose, what is the process that a curator goes through in reviewing slides and determining the theme and all of that,” said Hoong Yee Lee Krakauer, the executive director of the Queens Council on the Arts.
The students were trained by a curator with the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center through a 10-week program that grounded the project in a humanities curriculum.
The result is an authentic art show in a neighborhood brimming with artistic energy.
Astoria artist Troy Richards designed two enormous floating advertising balloons showing a cowboy and a chef, sliced in half and reconnected at the hip. In one, both characters’ upper bodies rise from the same base, and the other shows their legs fused together.
His goal was to “awaken the curiosity again” in pieces of commercial art that look spectacular on first viewing but quickly fade into the background.
“All of the students just had a great outlook and a great energy and enthusiasm,” he said.
For Asbury, the artist who created the wild animal piece, the interpretation that appeared so natural to the students came as a surprise, because she never expected the animals to be directly interpreted as humans.
“They take it down to a very personal level,” said Asbury, who lives on Vernon Boulevard in Long Island City. “They kids see it as something bad, that shouldn’t happen.”
But she created the work as an expression of the violence that must happen in nature so that life can continue — violence that, in a way, is beautiful.
“They chose it and they were very articulate about why they chose it,” she said. “Getting that blatant personal feedback was terrific.”
Although the students recognized the beauty in the animals’ act, they also saw it as a poignant counterpoint to human violence.
“They’re killing them because they’re hungry,” 14-year-old Mendonca said. “We’re killing for fun.”
The show will run until April 27 at 44-61 11th St. Hours are noon to 6 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday.
Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.