Finding Common Ground in a Complex Galaxy: A School Residency Project

Interior of final installation: The Box or Finding Common Ground in a Complex Galaxy.

This May I spent thirteen days at Upper St Clair High School as resident artist. I spent two weeks with a core group of around forty students (and two very supportive art teachers) to develop and create a public work for the school. I then spent three days visiting classrooms to provide an arts experience for all tenth graders.

I generally compose residency plans after meeting with school administrators and representatives from the PF/PCA Artists in Schools & Communities program. Although I design lesson plans in advance, my school residency projects are largely student-driven. I facilitate a process that involves learning, experimentation, brainstorming, decision-making, planning and implementation of a project. This is a lot to accomplish in ten days with a core group. Regardless of the final outcome, the rigorous pace gives participants experience in being part of a collaborative project. Compromise, delegation of tasks and teamwork are essential.

The project was broken down into one week of research and exploration followed by one week of construction and placement of an installation. This schedule allowed us to figure out ideas that we wanted to express in the work. It also gave all participants a chance to express their ideas.

WEEK 1: Project Brainstorming & Planning

The core group project began with the goal of developing a student-informed project that would express themes of empathy and understanding. I began by giving the students a presentation of my work, emphasizing the various forms that art can take. These included site-specific installation, public art events, social projects and performance art.

On day two, core groups viewed a presentation of works by contemporary artists addressing social issues. We looked at how Pedro Reyes addresses gun violence through projects that transform guns into musical instruments and gardening shovels. We looked at the work of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and discussed his messages of freedom, justice and equality. After the presentation and discussion, participants were given a survey asking them to describe issues that they feel strongly about and to suggest ideas for a collaborative project. We wrapped up with each student sharing an idea from their survey.

Discussion during week 1.

Our initial discussions and survey revealed a wide variety of interests and ideas. On the third meeting we looked a compilation of our collective concerns including equality, mental health and the environment. Our investigations into the motivations for art making made for some interesting philosophical discussion.

A tally of issues.

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An early student sketch.

 

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A student survey with sketches.

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Day three transitioned into an exercise in voicing our ideas through text-based art. After looking at examples by Barbara Kruger, Glen Ligon, Vanessa German and Bruce Nauman, each participant created their own text-based work in black and white acrylic on paper. Some of the challenges of the exercise were 1. Trying to present a clear message. 2. Thinking outside of one’s own knowledge and experience to create a piece that exhibits understanding and empathy. 3. Keeping the works creative.  After works were completed, we arranged them in a school hallway and had a critique. Some of the text-based exercises were later attached to our final installation.

Text art exercises.

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To refocus the core group, a collage exercise scheduled for the fourth day was changed to an exercise in manifesto-writing. Through debate and conversation, we realized that the core group was interested in a variety of issues. There was a strong interest in thinking outside of the school district, to have understanding of those living elsewhere. Freedom of speech and expression was also a core value that the group wanted to express. Students spoke of the difficulties in speaking their mind concerning political and social issues. We agreed that celebrating the complexity and uniqueness of each student was important and despite our differences, we could find common ground in work of creative expression.

A student sketch for a dress form.

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Dress installed in front of final installation.

On the fifth day we narrowed down our idea sketches into three ideas including a free-standing sculptural piece, a collection of thematic works and an immersive room containing focused areas of activity. A room or box-like form was voted on. We then began to sketch some variations of the idea and to prepare a list of materials. Wood and hardware was needed for the structure. The students agreed that repurposing materials was important, so I arranged to pick up a carload of materials from Pittsburgh Center for Creative Re-use.

Student sketches for box installation.

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WEEK 2: Construction and Placement

 Monday of the second week began with loading in materials and nervously anticipating where the project could be placed. The students wanted the work to be located in a visible public space in the school. The art teachers were very helpful in getting approval to place the work in the school lobby.

Within the core group, teams worked on various components of the installation. One group worked on an arrangement of cardboard raindrops, laser cut and suspended from the installation ceiling with fishing line. Each drop was embellished with a message. Another group worked on small dioramas, viewable through small holes in one wall of the installation. A third group worked on mobiles and small sculpture to be located within the main room of the installation. One of these works, a life-size dress form sculpture expressing ideas concerning woman’s rights and equality was eventually suspended in front of the installation.

Sketch for dioramas viewable through holes.

Framing in the box.

 

Looking into one of the holes reveals a famous wave covered in plastic debris.

Another hole reveals an eye made of collage text.

As teams worked, I quickly framed in the box shape with wood and assisted with connecting the various components. Walls were created from repurposed cardboard and fabric. Some students worked on painting interior areas.

Students working on the interior.

The exterior of the installation was covered with pieces of torn maps, making the final work look like a globe pounded into a cube. At final installation various text-art pieces were attached and collaged onto the work. Two doors and compact space gave the installation a maze-like feel.

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Art teacher Robyn Smigel assisting with installation.

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A student painting on the interior.

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Plastic jellyfish dangled from the ceiling.

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A suspended wire eye.

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Making a statement with dolls.

The project THE BOX  or Finding Common Ground in a Complex Galaxy, opened in the main lobby of the school. A giant hand-made artwork in the midst of a grand institutional entry, the work immediately attracted attention. Some noticed the messages and were excited. Some were confused that their daily surroundings were altered. Some were curious and wanted to explore the inside of the creation. During reflection with students at the completion of the installation, some expressed the difficulties in working on something so abstract over such a short time span. Not everything worked out as planned. Some were unsure of the rough aesthetic. Overall, I think all were involved in a thought-provoking process. All were challenged to think about art in new ways.

A student stops to check out the work as it is being installed in the lobby.

 

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