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WIU alumnus Marc Nelson infuses social justice issues into the art classes of his middle school students. (Photograph by Rich Egger)
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WIU Alumnus Inspires Art Students to Respond to Social Justice Issues

February 13, 2019

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MACOMB/KEWANEE, IL – A Western Illinois University alumnus is translating the historical lessons he learned from his grandfather and the classroom knowledge he gained on the University's campus for his middle school students at Kewanee's Central Elementary School.

Marc Nelson, who received his art education teaching certificate from Western in 2006, has been a middle school art teacher in Kewanee, IL since 2008. Prior to that he taught for two years at a private school in Iowa City, IA.

Through his classroom art lessons, Nelson is infusing social justice topics into his curriculum to teach students about specific cases of injustice. Students are then encouraged to incorporate and express their feelings about the lessons into the art they create.

"As an artist, I have been inspired to respond creatively to social justice issues since I was a child," said Nelson. "My grandfather's family was forced to flee the violence in Northern Ireland in the 1920s, and he and I would often talk about the fear and sorrow of his family's displacement from their home."
As a child, Nelson paged through his grandfather's large library of books about WWI. It was those books that moved him to create drawings and paintings that were "visual screams against these humanitarian calamities."

"As an art educator, I want to show my students what artists actually do," he said. "Beyond learning techniques and materials, artists are visually responding to the world around them. In addition, art is naturally interdisciplinary, and every artist we explore in class is exploring, questioning, celebrating or challenging their internal and external experiences and passions."

Introducing the social justice topics in the classroom creates a bridge for Nelson to dig deeper into new subject matter before presenting it to his students. Through the lessons, students use painting, drawing, digital art and stop-motion animation to visualize the issues. He encourages the students to respond to issues they are passionate about and sometimes he shares their work on Twitter to gain a broader audience.

"Creating art helps my students find their voice," he said. "When groups like Amnesty International or the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC acknowledge my young artists' work, it shows them that, though they are young, they have a right, even a civic duty, to never be silent about the things that matter to them. The world often underestimates, or even disregards the potential of our children to be lights of hope, even in the darkness."

Nelson said he recommends WIU to his students, and he calls his time at the University "one of the best educational choices I have ever made."

"My art and education instructors were passionate, talented and dedicated," he said. "They knew that art is, and should always be, an integral component of our society. My WIU instructors were, and are, inspired professionals, and they pushed me to continually learn and challenge myself."

While Nelson was at WIU, he worked as a student reporter for Tri States Public Radio (TSPR), which he said gave him access to cultural events in the region.

"While working for TSPR, I had the chance to spend the day with Buddhist monks, explore the nation's first town platted and registered by an African American (New Philadelphia, IL) and interview the humanitarian hero, Rwandan Paul Rusesabagina (portrayed in the film 'Hotel Rwanda')."

Nelson added that he stays in regular contact with his former WIU instructors and TSPR colleagues.

"They still encourage my work and are passionate about teaching the next generation of artists" he said.

For more information about the WIU Department of Art, visit

Posted By: Jodi Pospeschil (
Office of University Relations