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Music and art mix at Dallas County High School

Tangled coils of wire and broken pieces of tile lay scattered on the tables inside Dallas County High School’s art classroom. Students hunched over the tables. They dipped paintbrushes into colorful globs and swiped the brushes back and forth, staring holes into the square tile.

Charlie Lucas walked through the room with sweat beading on his forehead. Lucas grinned like a possum as he watched students wrestle with wire, paint the sun and fashion pieces of yarn into rainbows.

“I’m just having a ball,” Lucas said. “When you can bring them together with things they see everyday, that’s when the masterpiece comes out. It’s magic.”

Lucas, a world-famous folk artist from Selma, worked all week with students, while across campus, Fort Payne, Ala., musician and songwriter Russell Gulley taught students the blues and songwriting. Lucas and Gulley’s visit was funded by The Black Belt Arts Initiative grant, which focuses on storytelling.

“Most of art is storytelling,” art teacher Jo Taylor said.

In Taylor’s class, Lucas taught students how to use found objects in art. Students used pieces of garden hose, staples, wire, broken tile, yarn and paint to create 3-D works of art. Senior Ramon Burrell said he learned how to find beauty in the world around him.

“We been using old scraps, just anything,” Burrell said.

By Tuesday afternoon, Burrell had completed two works-“Man on a trail” and “Woman playing with a baby.”

“I was just thinking about John Wayne movies, westerns,” Burrell said of “Man on a trail.” “I kept doodling and putting pieces in different spots. Sometimes mistakes turn out to be good.”

While the students worked, Lucas milled about the room. He leaned in close, hands stained with paint, and offered advice and encouragement.

“They have responded to Charlie,” Taylor said. “Their creativity is out the roof.”

Lucas said he just loves being surrounded by children and art. He was happier than a pig in sunshine Tuesday, with students painting, sculpting, cutting and gluing all around him. Lucas said he hopes the students see Dallas County in a different light after this week.

“I’m telling them to look at the world,” he said. “I’m just honored to be in the midst of all this. I think it’s the most beautiful thing that any person can have.”

Across campus, in a small auditorium, Gulley strummed his Martin guitar and talked about the origins of popular music. Gulley, who recorded in Muscle Shoals, Ala., when the city was the “Hit Recording Capital of the World,” taught students about songwriting through blues music. He explained to them that the blues are the origin of many forms of popular music.

At first, Gulley said students did not believe him when he said Bo Diddley was one of the first rap artists. He played “Who do you love” and “Bo Diddley” for them. Diddley’s unmistakable guitar and voice rushed out of the speakers like a freight train.

“They see the connection,” Gulley said.

Gulley taught students the traditional form of a blues song. Then he began writing a song titled “The Dallas County High School Blues” with students. Gulley said he wants the students to be involved with the lesson.

“It’s a sharing kind of experience,” he said. “I hope I’m provoking a response.”

Junior Stephen Smitherman said he had never heard of Bo Diddley before Gulley came to his class.

“I didn’t know much about the blues,” Smitherman said. “It’s really neat to learn about different types of music we don’t listen to.”

Freshman William Austin said he appreciates the opportunity to learn about songwriting. It is not typical of a day at Dallas County High School, he said.

“Writing a song, it’s something I’ve never tried before,” Austin said.

Gulley said he tried to get students out of their comfort zones. Music is weaved into the fabric of everyone’s life, he said while Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” played inside the classroom.

“It’s new to them,” Gulley said. “I’m trying to get the students to think how folk music and the blues are really embedded in people’s lives.”