By Lauren Goldberg
In his own work as a practicing artist, art teacher Mike Golschneider has recently been creating a series of mixed-media pieces based on local wildlife, constructed from trash that he finds in the woods, in his neighborhood, along the shoreline and in parks. He presented several of his beautiful assemblages during City Wide Open Studios last month. When Art Chair Karla Matheny saw them, she encouraged him to bring the project to his Foote fifth grade students, who are engaged in their own environmental investigations in science and social studies. Mike was excited about sharing his artistic vision, as well as his concern about the natural world around us.
And so, our fifth graders' environmental studies have expanded into the art studio. For the past few weeks, they have been collecting, cleaning, and re-purposing "found objects," (otherwise known as trash) from our campus and from Egerton Park. Their final products, in the form of animal collages, were just mounted in the gallery along the main hallway in the Main Building.
Mike began the unit by showing, and explaining, several of his pieces. He talked about the appearance of the artwork, but he also described his thought process as he embarks on a new project as well as the significance of the materials he uses to create the works. The antlers in a magnificent portrait of a deer are made from cast-off holiday lights; Mike said that as soon as he found that string of lights, he knew exactly what he was going to do with it. Another piece emphasizes the theme of preserving the environment: "This lionfish is an invasive species, and it's made from items that washed up on the beach," Mike said as he pointed out details in the image. One student remarked, "It's an invasive species made from invasive trash!" In a third piece, Mike crafted a seal from dozens of cigarette butts that he found on the beach. "These are not biodegradable," he noted. Mike thinks a lot about the environment when he collects items. Many of his pieces emerge from his fascination with the non-natural items he finds in a natural place and the animals who live in that habitat.
After studying Mike's examples, the fifth graders got to work. First, each homeroom made a foray outdoors to collect materials. Two groups visited Egerton Park, bringing back a combined total of 19 pounds of trash. A third class spread out over the Foote School campus, and returned to the art room with 25 pounds of items (There's a graph on the wall near the display to show this information). There was great fascination with the found items, as students investigated them, washed them, and considered ways in which they could be transformed.
With all the materials gathered, the students formed partnerships to prepare their own environmental collages. Teammates discussed possible subjects for their artwork, and imagined all sorts of animals that they could create. Some people knew right away what they would create; others went to the internet to find pictures to use as references. Mike presented mini-lessons about dimension, layering and texture. Students experimented with different ways of re-shaping and re-forming the items they had collected.
Within a couple of class periods, animal images began to emerge, and the collaborative spirit was evident throughout the room "We want to make a bird of prey," one student told me. "We're going to use this [piece of plastic] for the beak." Across the table, another student announced, "We're making a panda." In another part of the room, two students leaned intently over their collage. "The eye could be up here," one partner suggested. Another student approached her partner, carrying a plastic spoon. "Do you think this would make a good nose?" she asked. Halfway through the double-block period, Mike called a break. "Stand up, walk around, and take a look at everyone else's projects. You might get some ideas about how people are using materials, and how they're attaching items."
At the beginning of the next class, Mike held up two partially-completed projects. "These are both really good, for different reasons," he said. He described how one team had chosen to highlight a particular item without painting it, because its color and texture lent itself well to the representation. In another case, the students had used paint to emphasize the shape of an item. "Pay attention to your materials," he encouraged. "What benefits from painting? Which materials might be better left uncovered?"
This project is not the first unit in which students have produced artwork "in the style of" a particular artist. However, when the artist is their own teacher, it is especially exciting. And when that artist's interests overlap with a core theme of the curriculum, what could be better?
Lauren Goldberg is Foote's curriculum coordinator.