DANVILLE — These days it’s easier than ever to connect with old childhood friends and classmates through social media and class reunions.

But Danville native Sunny Strader, a photographic artist in Los Angeles, did more than just reconnect with her fifth-grade classmates.

She explored their adult lives and reflected on the present, past and future through photos and writing in a photographic documentary project she named “5th Grade Dreams.” The work is an in-depth and intimate look at the millennial generation, specifically featuring young adults from Danville who are chasing their dreams.

Strader’s “5th Grade Dreams” will be on exhibit from Oct. 12 to Nov. 15, in the Paul Brumaghim gallery at the Danville Art League, 320 N. Franklin St.

An artist reception is set for 5-7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 12, at the art league.

Stretching over a two-year period, Strader traveled around the Midwest to interview and photograph her fifth-grade classmates, all of whom have an IQ of 120 or higher and were members of the 2002-2003 MATS (Motivating Academically Talented Students) program at the former East Park Elementary School.

Of the 17 classmates, 16 agreed to participate in Strader’s project. Six are parents, eight graduated from college, eight live in Danville and one is married.

“When I was home — four-and-a-half weeks at a time — I would work on it,” she said. “Two of us were in California, but the rest were in Des Moines, Louisville, Chicago and Indianapolis. Seven or eight people were in Danville, but one has moved to Colorado.”

Strader admitted she is frequently asked why she decided to revisit her fifth-grade classmates in their adult lives.

“I think it’s because I moved really far away from home, to L.A., and I started thinking, ‘Where did I come from?’ ‘Why is it so different here?’ and I started thinking collectively about my classmates and what they might be experiencing,” she said. “So I think it’s (project) a reflection of thinking about where we came from and where we’re going.

“It was a concept that became a reality,” she said.

As Strader started delving into her classmates’ lives, she said she felt the MATS program no longer played a role in the story she wanted to tell through her project.

“The MATS part started to become less of a focus,” she said. “MATS was what brought us together, but fifth grade is the year before you enter middle school and you’re still innocent and it’s the last year you really remember being a child.

“There’s no academic program that can predict someone’s success. We were so young anyway,” she said. “The MATS program just offered alternative methods of learning, like learning outside of the box.

“Instead, I think it tells what it’s like to be a young adult — a millennial — being 27-years-old in 2019,” she said of her project. “Everyone is intelligent, but it begs the question, ‘Why does life get so messy?’”

Strader said she was a little concerned about the reaction she would receive when she first contacted her classmates — many of whom she hadn’t spoken with or seen in years — about interviewing and photographing them in their present life situation.

“I started it in May 2017,” she said. “That’s when I started proposing it to my classmates.”

But much to her relief, Strader said, “They understand what I’m trying to say.”

“The thing we have in common is we’re bright and, as the project evolved, it became more about seeking an understanding of our generation and our time,” she said.

Strader sees the project evolving over time.

“My classmates are constantly updating me when they get a job or have a change in their life,” she said. “I’ve really been hitting this project for two years, so I want to let it breathe and then come back to it.”

The biggest surprise she experienced while working on her project was how easily she reconnected with her classmates.

“I had a lot of moments where people I haven’t seen since school, we just picked up where we left off,” she said. “We still had that connection from 16 to 18 years ago.”

Strader said she is eager to show her work in her hometown.

“I had a little show in L.A., but I realized the work is meant to be seen in Danville,” she said. “I kept thinking, ‘I wish my classmates were here,’ ‘I wish my community was here.’

“It’s supposed to connect people,” she said of her project.

So she sent an email to Joyce Melton and Carol Garver at the Danville Art League who arranged the month-long exhibit of her work.

“I hope our teachers show up to the exhibit,” Strader said.

She described the exhibit as a collection of photos that tell a story.

“It’s like little vignettes of photos of varying sizes,” she explained.

The photos depict her classmates in “a homey, familiar place,” and the project shows “how they express themselves through the photography.”

“I’m not paying them to do this,” she said. “They’re being vulnerable on their own volition, and I appreciate them letting me into their lives after so long.”

Strader hopes to see friends and community members at the Oct. 12 reception at the art league.

“It’s open to anyone who wants to come,” she said.

When Strader isn’t creating photographic art, she is teaching photography to at-risk youth between the ages of 13 and 18 through a non-profit organization in Los Angeles.

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