When Laena Wilder was 10 years old, a walk down San Francisco’s Market Street with her Nueva art teacher Barbara Marino and her best friend set fire to a passion that would drive the rest of her life.
“As we looked out at the big city with its array of businessmen and homeless people,” Wilder described in a video about her work, “my art teacher leaned over us and said: ‘I want you to look at each person we pass and find the beauty in their uniqueness. In each wrinkle stemming from that man’s eyes, or the freckled skin of that boy’s face, or the curve of the old lady’s back. I want you to look carefully—and I want you to look hard. I want you to find their beauty.’”
“It was a difficult assignment and it took time, but eventually we learned to find the beauty in each person,” said Wilder. “That day dramatically shifted the way I see the world.”
In the decades after that walk, Wilder dedicated her life to finding and documenting the beauty in everything. Her fascination, sparked during her six years at Nueva, from first to sixth grade, led her to pursue art and storytelling. Her endeavors have led her to photograph and interview people all over the world, from those at the 2017 Women’s March to locals in Zanzibar, Tanzania, whom she has been rephotographing and cultivating relationships with for the past 23 years.
Her recent work includes “Origins and Destinations,” a large-scale exhibition where she interviewed over 200 people at the Miami International Airport about their comings and goings. This work has been travelling from airport to airport since its completion in 2015 and will continue on display through 2019 at the Atlanta International Airport.
“These images and their corresponding stories combine portraiture and storytelling into one potent show that helps us see the similarities and the humanity in each other,” Wilder said in an interview with the Nueva Current in 2019.
This notion of equality and understanding one another is vital for her, and it had its origins in part from attending Nueva on a scholarship.
Laena’s mom worked at Nueva, both at the front desk and helping to produce the newsletter, in exchange for tuition. “Nueva saw the value of having our family involved and wanted to offer support to our single mom who was raising three daughters on her own,” Laena said. “They let the three of us attend for all six years. Nueva was a life changer for my whole family.”
Here, even in first grade, Wilder realized she had found her passion. “The art room was my haven,” she said.
She loved the “incredible” art teacher, Barbara Marino, whom Wilder described as “so passionate,” and who managed to inspire her young students into being “totally involved in our art and storytelling.”
“I remember learning blind contour drawing in second grade. When I started studying art in college, we were doing the same assignments I did in elementary school at Nueva,” she said. “When I look back at my work from Nueva, it was so advanced. We didn’t have anything to measure our experience at that time, it was just our experience. It wasn’t ‘advanced’ or ‘college level’; it was simply what [we] did. It was meaningful.”
Wilder and her family’s experience at Nueva drives the way she views the world now, both through her love for art and storytelling, sparked by her teachers and curriculum, and her views on equitable education, a result of the opportunity that she was given.
“I don’t think education should be divided by socioeconomic standing,” she said. “We all deserve to learn, we all deserve to be in a safe learning environment that celebrates the best part of each student and gives space for that to grow.”