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Lehigh hosts special guest for Artist in Residence program

Lehigh Elementary School welcomed Ibiyanka Alao and his wife, Kaila, back to the school Oct. 16-20 for his second Artist in Residence program after five-and-a-half years. Alao is a Nigerian artist, storyteller, ambassador, film maker, author and architect.

He is the painter of “Fireflies,” also known as “Eternity in Our Hearts,” which went on to win first place among 61 countries in the United Nations International Art Competition. He was the first African artist to win that honor.

What followed was an invitation from the president of Nigeria to come to the embassy in New York City to be the art ambassador to the United Nations, which brought him to the United States and opened many doors for him. He said he also began to understand more about how art can play a role in the diplomatic mission.

“Sometimes when you want to broker peace between two countries, you just have to think differently. What enables you to think differently is creativity. It’s been very humbling to see that I’ve actually been able to [use my art] to create peace between people. I am very delighted about it,” he said.

He has done presentations and artist residencies all over the nation and was sent to the area for the first time about 10 years ago, where he spoke at many of the colleges and high schools. During a program he presented at Mauch Chunk Opera House in Jim Thorpe, he met Carolyn and Jim Albright, who were instrumental in bringing him to Lehigh Elementary for the first time. Carolyn Albright was a teacher in the school at the time. She has since retired.

Alao’s return this year was thanks to a grant from the Konkrete Kids Educational Foundation. The funding request was made by Denise Straub, a second-grade teacher at Lehigh Elementary.

Over the years, Alao’s “Fireflies” painting has grown into a storybook, “Ibi’s Fireflies,” which then became a short movie that grew into a musical. The end result takes storytelling, painting, music, drama and dance and puts them all together. This is what Alao presented to the kids in a weeklong program, where he worked with all the grades separately in the different disciplines and then brought them all together on the last day for a schoolwide presentation.

“Ibi,” as the kids fondly call him, based his “Fireflies” painting on a real-life experience that many of us have shared - catching fireflies in a jar and then having to let them go. He said the experience taught him the true meaning of love and how letting go may be the greatest act of love.

Each of his paintings has a story connected to it and, in this way, carries a message or moral with it. For example, one of his paintings is called “True Miracles,” and the story behind it is the oyster, who chooses to turn irritations in its life into pearls.

He asked the kids, “How many of you have had irritations in your lives,” and he added they all, even kindergartners, will cite their brothers and sisters, people they can’t get rid of and must live with for the rest of their lives. He teaches it is actually better to learn how to forgive them for their digressions and how much more beautiful it is if, as adults, we learn to forgive rather than think about getting rid of people.

These are lessons that can guide children to become better at dealing with their emotions and with the world around them. He is essentially teaching peacekeeping techniques.

He started the week by showing each grade a slideshow of paintings and telling the stories attached to them. Then, working together and by grade throughout the week, he encouraged the students to tell their stories with workshops in writing, painting, music and drama.

At the end of the week, they had a schoolwide assembly where the grades participated together, practicing the skills they learned, against the backdrop of Alao’s larger-than-life paintings, full of color, strong lines and contrast. Firefly lights in jars and black lights added to the magic.

Straub said members of Konkrete Kids Educational Foundation were invited to attend any of the workshops throughout the week, and pictures were shared with them as well, along with a thank you for helping make this program happen.

“I think the important thing is his message to the kids through his art, music, drama and writing - of love and kindness and perseverance through difficult times. He’s a very humble and positive man, and he just radiates goodness,” Straub said. “Just being in his presence is a positive experience, and I think the children having that experience, that they get to work with him every day for a week, is a wonderful thing that will stay with them for a long time.”

Ibiyanka Alao visits Lehigh Elementary School Oct. 16-20 for an Artist in Residence program. Alao is a Nigerian artist, storyteller, ambassador, film maker, author and architect who painted “Fireflies,” also known as “Eternity in Our Hearts,” which went on to win first place among 61 countries in the United Nations International Art Competition.
PRESS PHOTOS BY M.J. KORSAK Lehigh Elementary students show their works of art, which were completed during the program with “Ibi,” as the kids fondly call him.
A Lehigh teacher reads a book to students.