South Newton Middle School students make meaningful (arts) connections

At South Newton Middle School, a figure on hands and knees climbs a length of wood, approaching two people holding hands and another pair with arms outstretched in victory. The crowd gathered around erupts in applause and cheers—but what they observed was not friends conquering a piece of playground equipment, as you might expect, but one part of a new permanent indoor sculpture at their school. Students and teachers celebrated the new piece as sculptor and actor Kevin Reese hung and balanced a mobile, the final addition to the sculpture, which SNMS students spent a week making in collaboration with Reese.

Reese’s visit with over 300 students at SNMS in the spring of 2014 had a dual purpose: as an actor, he presented Apollo: To the Moon, a play designed to introduce students to the drama of the Apollo space program and the race to the moon using NASA photographs, original broadcasts from space, and music from the 1960s. As a sculptor, he worked with students to create a sculpture made of wood, wire, and sanded foam core. Students in several of teacher Jenn Barrett’s art classes learned how to make mobiles, drawing geometric or organic shapes in foam core and learning how to balance them by adjusting the wire connecting the shapes. Students in the advanced art classes worked closely with Reese on assembling the main sculpture’s form and mobile, planning potential designs before his arrival.Students started the design process with the school’s mission statement, “Making meaningful connections,” in mind. It reminds students not only that all of their actions affect their fellow students, but also how what they learn today will help them connect to new topics and subjects in the future. The process of creating the sculpture, as well as its final design, embodied this mission statement so well that the sculpture was given the same name. “The students helped with many pieces of the sculpture, and they’re all connected—either by wood or by wire. You can see that we have silhouettes of people, and that one is just climbing on her own, until she connects with another person, and then they succeed together,” said Barrett. The mobile at the top of the sculpture is made of several shapes, but includes stars—which the figures on the sculpture are reaching for.

Reese, who has helped students in 27 states create more than 135 public art pieces, agreed that teamwork was one of the keys to the project’s success. “What I love about this project is that the students own it. With all of these mobiles, some students cut the shapes out and some painted them. Different students flame-proofed and balanced them. I like that there’s a more holistic sense of ownership.”

003Students who spoke at the sculpture’s dedication enjoyed the chance to build the sculpture and mobile, but also cited the chance to work alongside a professional artist as one of their favorite parts of the week-long experience. They liked getting to know Reese, seeing how he worked, and being an integral part of a learning experience that was more hands-on than many of their homework assignments.

SNMS principal Tansey Mulligan saw additional benefits. “I think one of the things having an artist here did for us was emphasize the importance of creativity. We had just finished with our ISTEP testing, and a lot of times we get caught up in standardized testing and all the things that go along with it: math, English, science, and social studies. But we pride ourselves on being an art-friendly school here at South Newton Middle School, so we want to continue to show the kids that creativity, learning to think outside the box, and critical thinking are related to art and what they’ve been doing with this hands-on project. Kevin really helped them with critical thinking, not only through the creative process, but also through trial and error,” Mulligan explained. The flexibility demonstrated by Reese and the students was especially important when the sculpture’s location had to be moved from the school’s lawn to its main lobby during the week it was constructed.

Barrett noted that the project built on everything she teaches: line, shape, form, and creating artwork with meaning. But she feels the students learned just as much from having a goal and working hard throughout the week to reach it. She also sees the connections students can make between the sculpture and other areas of study. “I can’t wait for the physics class to come in and start looking at the way this is balanced and talking about it. I 012can’t wait for students in English classes to start writing poems or critiques about it. My art class will definitely be doing critiques of the sculpture. This allows us to make connections to other subjects that our school and our state standards require. What an awesome piece to have here at South Newton,” she said.

Both Barrett and Reese noted that this experience for the students wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for the generous support of Convocations donor Tom Wilson of Wilson Industrial Sales. His annual gift supports arts outreach in Newton County Schools and helps students in the district come to Purdue to attend Convocations matinee performances. “Our thanks have to go to Wilson Industrial Sales and the Wilson family for this very generous gift to Convocations and South Newton Middle School, which enriched our art department,” said Barrett. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

As for Tom Wilson, he sees this as one way to give back to the community that he feels has supported him. “It’s pretty simple. It’s an opportunity for children in Newton Community Schools to experience a day at Purdue, and to do something they might never have the opportunity to do if Convocations didn’t present performances,” he said.

He also recognizes how valuable it is for kids to work together with an artist to complete a specific project. “In life, the more hands-on experiences you have, and the broader your education is, the more likely you are to do similar things later in life because you’ve already tried them, instead of thinking that you can’t.”

Artist Kevin Reese appreciates this insight. “It wouldn’t have happened without him,” added Reese. “It takes people who see the possibility.”

Special thanks to guest writer Stacey Mickelbart for this article.