Comedian Kevin Hart launched his Netflix series “Kevin Hart's Guide to Black History” in 2019. In the comedy series, Hart introduces his fictional daughters to Black history’s unsung heroes through re-enactments. Through the show, high-school student Jordyn Sledge learned about Vivien Thomas, who later became the inspiration for Sledge’s award-winning art piece,“Heartstrings Unraveled.”

“She came up, and said, ‘I heard about this person on a comedy special from Kevin Hart,’ during maybe Black History Month,” Ida B. Wells Academic and Performing Arts Complex Visual Arts Department Chair and 2D Art teacher Renna Moore-Edwards told the Crirec. “She said, ‘I remember him mentioning this person (from the list of ARTEFFECT heroes).’”

Sledge, who recently completed the eighth grade at Ida B. Wells Academic and Performing Arts Complex, placed second in the middle-school division of ARTEFFECT, an art competition the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes sponsors. Student artists choose an unsung hero with whom they connect, and they interpret that person’s story through art. The win comes with a $1,000 cash award. The work, which took more than two weeks to complete, was deeply personal to her. 

“The story of Vivien Thomas is one that speaks to me because my mother is an African American doctor and my sister is working to be a physical therapist,” Sledge wrote in her impact statement submitted with the piece. “Neither of them would have been able to attain these positions if not for the work of Dr. Thomas.”

These unsung heroes include “individuals who took heroic actions that made a positive and profound impact on the course of history.”

“The vision behind my piece was the expression of the lifesaving work he did in both his youth and old age,” Sledge said in the statement. “This work expresses the heroic nature of Vivien Thomas with the use of imagery and symbolism. In one hand, Thomas can be seen holding a needle connecting to a heart above his younger and older self. … The two vastly different media represent the changes in time, but they still connect to his life’s work: the heart.”

Sledge’s mixed-media piece includes painting, embroidery and woodburning techniques. It features a muted color wooden background with an image of a younger Thomas burned into the grain. On the right, Sledge added an oil pastel portrait of Thomas holding a baby.

“The little baby he's holding is actually Jordyn’s nephew,” Moore-Edwards said.

“I chose my nephew, Cahari, as the model for the baby because I really love him and (because) I’d been planning on doing a piece revolving around him,” Sledge told the Crirec on June 26. “Another reason is that I don’t have a lot of experience drawing babies, so it was helpful to have a model right next to me.”

‘Something the Lord Made’

Sledge also braided thread sewn on top of a cardboard structure of an anatomical heart to portray Thomas’s famous stitching.

“The stitches he made were nearly impossible to see, which Dr. Blalock referred to as ‘something the Lord made,’” Sledge said in her impact statement. “This quote is represented by Thomas’ needle, creating stitches in a floating heart surrounded by a halo.”

Vivien Thomas is an African-American known for his groundbreaking work in cardiovascular surgery. With no formal medical training and despite the barriers of a segregated society, he developed techniques and tools that would lead to today's modern heart-surgery practices. 

2024 Middle School Second Place artwork
Ida B. Wells Academic and Performing Arts student Jordyn Sledge created an artistic representation of unsung Black hero Vivien Thomas using paint, embroidery and woodburning elements. Photo courtesy Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes

Thomas began working as an orderly in a private infirmary to raise money for college and enrolled as a premedical student at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial College. However, the 1929 bank crash wiped out his life's savings, forcing him to drop out of school. He secured a job as a laboratory assistant with Alfred Blalock at Vanderbilt University. The pair conducted a series of experiments on the treatment of hemorrhagic and traumatic shock, which led to the study of the Crush syndrome that saved the lives of thousands of soldiers on the World War II battlefields. 

Blaylock valued his abilities as a surgical assistant and research associate so much that he asked Thomas to accompany him when he moved to John Hopkins in 1941. Blaylock had turned down several job opportunities before the move because they would not allow Thomas to accompany him. Blaylock performed the first “blue baby” surgery with Thomas standing on a stepstool over his shoulder to coach him. The procedure launched the field of cardiac surgery.

In 1946, Thomas developed a surgical technique to improve blood circulation for patients whose aorta and pulmonary artery were transposed, a complex operation called an atrial septectomy. Reportedly, when Blaylock inspected the stitches, he told Thomas, “This looks like something the Lord made.”

Thomas trained surgeons in heart and lung surgery techniques in the Johns Hopkins surgical lab for 35 years. Johns Hopkins awarded Thomas with an honorary doctorate in 1976, the same year the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine appointed Thomas to its faculty as an instructor of surgery. His story is portrayed in the movie “Something the Lord Made.”

“Dr. Vivian Thomas was a pioneer in cardiovascular surgery,” Sledge said. “My piece is representing that. I wanted to show a lot of the life-saving work that he did.”

‘When Students Have a Place to Grow’

Instructor Renna Moore-Edwards is extremely proud of the work that her student produced.

“She did all kinds of research,” Moore-Edwards told the Crirec on June 12. “She had sketchbook pages for her ideas, and her piece completely morphed from what it originally looked like, but it was really great watching out of the process as she researched and found out more information about this person and started incorporating it into the actual piece.”

A blonde woman wearing a black top and long necklace
ARTEFFECT Ambassador, Ida B. Wells Academic and Performing Visual Arts Complex Department Chair and 2D Art teacher Renna Moore-Edwards provided the assignment, materials and inspiration for Sledge’s art. Photo courtesy Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes

The Lowell Milken Center selected the 21-year educator, who has worked in the Jackson Public School District for the past 11 years, as a 2023-2024 ARTEFFECT ambassador. She participated in an online training program that provided educators with strategies to teach projects related to unsung heroes. Ambassadors were also required to create projects based on what they learned. Moore-Edwards’s experience helped her motivate Jordyn Sledge as she worked through the project.

“Mrs. Moore helped by giving me the supplies and resources used in the piece (such as the oil pastel and wood panel) and working with me to fine-tune and build upon my ideas,” Sledge said.

Moore-Edwards described Sledge as immensely talented, as evidenced by the many awards she has won.

“Jordan herself is very talented,” Moore-Edwards said. “She won the middle-school first place for Youth Art Month for the whole state. She won first place in the College Savings Mississippi (contest) with the Mississippi Treasury Department. We just found out that she is a national gold medalist for Scholastic Art and Writing.”

Each year, Moore-Edwards has had students place as national finalists in the competition, including a grand prize win in 2020. However, this is the first middle-school winner she has witnessed during her career. Three other students from Wells APAC were considered national finalists as well.

“These are all students from Jackson Public Schools,” Moore-Edwards said. “In the case of the Lowell Milken ARTEFFECT, we're the only school in the entire world that had four international finalists. … It is an example of what can happen when you let students have a place to grow in their art and their academics. For these kids, especially for this competition, a big part of their score was also their writing. So it's not just an example of them being artistically creative. It is a very good example of how they are academically creative, too.”

Learn more about the ARTEFFECT art competition at lowellmilkencenter.org/competitions/arteffect

Know a Mississippian you believe deserves some public recognition? Nominate them for a potential Person of the Day article at mfp.ms/pod.

Torsheta Jackson is MFP's education-equity reporter, in collaboration with Report for America. She is passionate about telling the unique and personal stories of the people, places and events in Mississippi. The Shuqualak, Miss., native holds a B.A. in Mass Communication from the University of Southern Mississippi and an M.A. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Mississippi. She has had bylines on Bash Brothers Media, Mississippi Scoreboard and in the Jackson Free Press. Torsheta lives in Richland, Miss., with her husband, Victor, and two of their four children.