CHESTERTOWN — In a speech that highlighted the importance of teaching students an inclusive history, Kyle Hackett said art can be a tool to help students engage with their history.

“But ultimately, out of this entire experience, I hope that introducing some of the local history to schools offers a place where we can foster a community of critical thinkers, where curiosity replaces judgment, possibilities are kind of overtaken by risk taking and all students feel equally valued and part of this narrative,” Hackett said.

Just hours after the community celebrated the opening of the Port of Chestertown Marina Cerino Center Friday, Hackett served as the guest speaker at a ceremony for the African American Revolutionary War Art Exhibit.

The exhibit’s mission statement is “to verify the presence of African American seamen in the maritime history of the Revolutionary War as interpreted through the creation of art by local Kent County students.”

The exhibit, which was facilitated by Carol Niemand, will remain on display through Nov. 10 at the Cerino Center. It features work created by students at Kent County Middle School, Kent School and Radcliffe Creek School.

John Schratwieser, director of the Kent County Arts Council, provided some background on the exhibit. He said it is part of an effort to bring African American history to the Downrigging Festival.

Niemand said Kent County Public Schools board member Nivek Johnson was instrumental in getting Hackett to speak at the ceremony. Johnson also introduced Hackett.

Hackett, who grew up in Still Pond and is a graduate of Kent County High School, opened his speech by asking what it means to be an artist and produce “cultural objects.”

“But really what we do here today is we are gathered to celebrate these groundbreaking possibilities between the intersections of art history and culture,” Hackett said.

Hackett is a visual artist based in Washington, D.C. and a professional lecturer in studio art at American University.

Hackett said by viewing a painting that depicts African American heritage — like the ones in the exhibit — the art resonates with the viewer, which in turn causes the art to “secure a place in history” or become a “living document about the need for representation.”

He said the human need for “authentic connection” is still relevant today, centuries after art was first created to make that connection. Though today, art can be used more for creating connections across cultural boundaries.

“There’s perhaps, in the simplest terms, this valuation of art as one’s connections to and position with nature and need to understand,” Hackett said.

He said when a viewer sees the piece at the “magic distance” of about 3 feet away, they are put in the position of the maker allowing the viewer to develop an emotional connection with the artist. He praised the work of the gallery, saying that by allowing young artists to create art based on their perspectives of history, it allows the students to further engage with history.

Hackett said “visual language” created in art also has the ability to “transcend culture,” whereas verbal language can be limited to its culture. He encouraged the audience to spend time with the art on display in order to form connections.

“Maybe think of it as an offering. Maybe somebody has shown you another perspective or way into their thought process,” Hackett said.

Growing up in Still Pond — which Hackett called “rural Kent County” because he would need to drive to Chestertown to buy groceries — allowed him to create art using what material he had.

“We struggled, but this breeds creativity. You find a way to make it work,” Hackett said.

Hackett said because when he created art, he was in a sense creating his own narrative, it was the only time he felt secure and that he was in control.

“It was no longer consumption, but I was actually producing things,” Hackett said.

Hackett said his childhood still influences the way he creates art to the extent that it even impacts his studio practice. He said upbringing also influenced how he intellectually engages with the world.

He said by tinkering with things, he is able to experiment more and find out what specifically works from him. Hackett said art is then his tool for questioning how he engages with the world and how others do so. He said by using art, he can challenge past and false representations of his history.

“Remember whether you’re an artist or not, keep asking questions, making things and challenging your assumptions, research and writing, solve problems, don’t be afraid to mess up. Also give yourself permission to mess up. That’s how you grow. That’s how you learn,” Hackett said. “These conditions really do allow for this knowledge to be validated, contested but most importantly discovered with rigorous conviction.”

Hackett said creating art is a way to ensure there is diverse representation in the community because art can entice people to begin to question their previous representation.

He said art can “train people” how to see, value and connect with humanity especially “with the rich roots and history with the often invisible African American experience here in Kent County.”

Hackett said he is looking forward to learning about African American heritage in his hometown along with members of the community here.

Hackett thanked the audience for attending the event and for “spending time around art” and engaging with the people that make it.

“I really appreciate, kind of coming back home,” Hackett said.

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