As public schools adjourn for summer, an art residency program that places professional artists in classrooms just wrapped up its second year in northern West Virginia. Students, community members and teachers gathered for an in-school reception at John Marshall High School, in Marshall County, to celebrate.
Students at John Marshall High School dressed up for the reception. They met with teachers and community members in a ground-level hallway with floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto a grassy plot of ground behind the school. That’s where their art installation is planted.
“It is a visual expression of passage through life,” Faith Ward said as she walked outside through the exhibit. “By passage, I mean phases of life like birth, life and death.”
Ward is one of four juniors who worked over the past school year to imagine and create the installation. Students looked to the Adena people as a seed of inspiration.
The Adena built the six-story-tall burial mound that gives nearby Moundsville its name. Wooden stakes wrapped in colored cloth are stuck up out of the grass, arranged in three circular clusters. Each cluster represents birth, life, death and rebirth.
“What I’m looking at right now is the life piece,” said Asher Goddard, another student involved in the project, described the ceremonial-looking installation. “We have them arranged in a very non-rhythmic pattern.”
“It’s kind of messy,” she added, “just like life is.”
The death and rebirth cluster has a flower planted in the earth at its center, a freshly bloomed red and white carnation.
A Therapeutic Art Class
Students like Goddard didn’t sugarcoat how difficult they found the class.
“We did get frustrated few times when things didn’t work out our way to the point where we wanted to quit,” Goddard said. “But life is about challenges. This whole project was a challenge up until the day we finished it. It was really nice to finally overcome it and see what we created.”
The students call the exhibit Passage, but their mentor and professional guide, Michael McKowen, says it could have been called Process.
“Everytime we had a challenge, someone came up with something we could do and students took ownership of it,” McKowen recalled. “They went from a point where they weren’t necessarily looking to get involved in something to taking ownership of something that they made from scratch that had all of their heart and soul in it.”
This is the second year McKowen has participated as an artist in residence. He called creating the installation with students at John Marshall an “emotional rollercoaster” that culminated periodically on days when students would sit in a circle with him, tediously building each cloth-covered stake, sharing stories about their lives. McKowen said it was a humbling exercise in vulnerability that revealed to him how therapeutic making art can be.
“All of these students, they’re working jobs, they’re taking care of other family members, they’re bearing a much heavier burden than I ever did in high school,” McKowen said. “Even though it’s great if they’re able to pick up some skills or learn how to fabricate something, they just wanted someone to listen to them and someone to share their experiences with them.”
Art Classes Making the Grade
The Rural Arts Collaborative residency program began seven years ago in southwestern Pennsylvania. This is the second school year schools in the upper Ohio Valley have participated. Residencies here are funded through the Oglebay Institute in Wheeling.
Danielle McCracken, president of the institute, said her organization became interested in supporting the program because it enhances arts curriculum in schools and because the program has demonstratively impacted cognitive, social and emotional development as well as academic performance in schools in Pennsylvania.
“Once they’re engaged in the classroom with the arts, they realize it’s such an important learning tool,” McCracken said. “It’s beyond the final product. It’s about the process. It’s about challenges and connections and thinking creatively to solve problems which I think is really important to all of us, but certainly to kids to be creative problem solvers and to be able to communicate and collaborate. And really, that is at the heart of this Rural Arts Collaborative program.”
Other schools in the region that were involved in the Rural Arts Collaborative this year included Bellaire High School in Ohio where students worked for a year with photographer Rebecca Kiger. Brooke Middle School in Brooke County and Weir High School in Hancock County hosted artists and professors from West Liberty University, Nancy Tirone and Robert Villamagna, respectively.
Organizers hope to expand the program to more schools next year.
The Rural Arts Collaborative is funded by the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation and has received additional funding from Chevron, Community Foundation of Fayette County, Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation and EQT.