African custom teaches individuality |

African custom teaches individuality


In teaching students about an African custom, Richard Johnson said he’s really teaching them about themselves.

“We start out learning about African masks but that’s just the launching point,” he said. “They masks they make are original. They’re their own.”

Like 9-year-old Stephanie Duerr’s mask featuring stick figures of her parents and siblings surrounded by brightly colored shapes.

“I’m just a family kind of person,” she explained. “My family is very bright so I put lots of light into it.”

Johnson, an artist from Jerome, Ariz., spent 10 months in West Africa in 1987 on a Fulbright Fellowship. He is spending two weeks at Fremont Elementary School teaching some of what he learned to students.

Counselor Nanette Oleson arranged the visit through the Nevada Art Council’s Artist in Residency program. The council paid half the expenses while the school’s parent-teacher association paid the other half.

“Bringing in someone who has worldwide experience really broadens the outlook of our students. At the same time, we’re meeting school and state standards,” Oleson said. “Not everybody has to travel to Africa to get a little bit of its culture.”

Johnson presented a slide show and video of African traditions to the students, then worked with individual classrooms to create masks and body suits.

“I made mine into a wolf, kind of,” said Hannah Winder, 10. “We get to do pretty much whatever we want.”

Johnson spent the last three days working with Marcia Richey’s fourth-grade class.

“I love it,” Richey said. “It allows them to express themselves. The masks pretty much take on the personality of the students.

“The kids haven’t wanted to go to lunch for the last three days.”

Sean Lopez, 10, was pleased with the overall appearance of his creation.

“It looks like a guardian,” he explained. “It looks like it’s from a Greek land of some kind.”

All students who made masks and body suits will share them with the rest of the student body at 1:30 p.m. Thursday.

Johnson will also host a slide show and video presentation for the public followed by a parade of the students’ masks at 7 p.m. Thursday at Fremont Elementary School.

Contact Teri Vance at or 881-1272.