By Kelly Ann Smith
The Parrish Art Museum takes pride in opening its doors for the first time this year by celebrating its annual “Student Exhibition,” a 65-year tradition. Students from all over the East End will showcase their artistic expression in three galleries, which open on Friday, March 12, for members, and two days later to the general public.
I met with the museum’s education director, Cara Conklin-Wingfield, as the show was being prepared for the big reopening.
“It’s always a lot of fun. Very exciting,” she said. “You never know what to expect. Parents and grandparents remember being part of this exhibit. My Aunt Judy is in her 70s and remembers being in the exhibition when she attended Riverhead Schools.”
The art educator grew up in Riverhead and also teaches older students with special needs, people in Suffolk County Correctional Facility, adults with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases and more through various museum outreach programs.
Conklin-Wingfield made clear right away, however, this show is not about her. Yes, she contacted every school on the East End to get their thoughts, and, in the end, got over 30 schools to participate, but it was the art teachers who really made the show happen, despite mind boggling challenges this past year.
“At the beginning of remote learning, like so many other teachers, I was lost,” said Tuckahoe School art teacher Barbara Imperiale. “How can you teach art impactfully, while keeping the process and excitement that happens when learning new art techniques or styles, intact?”
She did it with endless researching and self-teaching to stay just ahead and continually create new and innovative lessons while keeping safety limitations in place.
“In the face of some very hard life experiences and huge changes, I am proud to say that our students turn to art to feel comfort, pride or simply to smile,” she said.
Over 1,000 students, from pre-K through high school, worked on their projects as they moved from the classroom to virtual learning and back more times than anyone cared to count.
“Yes, it’s challenging, but it’s something important to look forward to,” Imperiale said. “It took on a sense of importance, more than other years. Students can’t participate in concerts or sports. It’s rare it’s just happening.”
Art teachers come up with the ideas and students run with the theme. When it’s time for installation, museum preparator Robin Klopfer supervises a crew of three people, who pull it all together in a unified display.
The students’ artwork gets the same treatment as the artwork from the museum’s permanent collection. For the first time, the museum accepted individual artwork from grades seven and eight, an honor usually reserved only for high school students.
“It’s a big job to install and make it look uniform,” she said, noting that striking a balance between the different groups takes looking at a lot of details.
“And then you get to notice cats in a diner,” she said, pointing to a painting in the gallery dedicated to the high school students.
Another standout student work was painted by a member of the Poospatuck Reservation in Mastic — a stunning portrait in the spirit of Native American dancing and regalia. I also recognized familiar boat scenes from Three Mile Harbor in East Hampton.
Large, colorful pieces anchor the gallery of younger student artwork across the hallway in the impressive Parrish building. There are no spotlights, or direct sunlight in the galleries. Instead, skylights stream light from the north and south flooding the spaces with natural light.
“The entire building is on an east/west axis. The architect visited art studios on the East End, many of which were barns that had been rearranged to accommodate diffuse northern light,” Conklin-Wingfield explained. “The whole building was based on light studies.”
For this exhibition, the Hayground School in Bridgehampton created a special school-wide project displayed on the museum’s floor, bolstered by several short pedestals. Art teachers Perry Burns and Sabra Elliot came in to re-work the group’s piece on their own when the museum found another block to stretch out the ceramic pieces connected with wire.
“We wanted all the kids to participate,” the teachers told me of the repetitive work based on artists Ai Weiwei and Maya Lin. Each clay medallion may have been made individually or in pods, but what would it become when they were all brought together to make one large piece?
In each reiteration, the display looks totally different thanks to the amazing variety of work. The more you look, the more you see. Lips, eyeballs, fish, suns, circles and squares. It’s all there.
“The creative process with kids can be all over the place,” Burns said, with a chuckle.
One work by the Peconic Community School in Aquebogue is definitely a sign of the times. The students took Plexiglas that was sent to the school to separate workspaces, but it was the wrong size and could not be sent back. So the grade schoolers utilized the subpar sneeze guards and painted masked faces on the plastic tower they built, with the words, “Happy to Be Together Again.”
“We never would have had this material or theme previously,” said Conklin-Wingfield.
Dayton Avenue School in Manorville’s “Peace, Love, Happiness” artwork looks like it took a cue from a large, black, Louise Nevelson on display in the entryway. The all-white triptych features found objects such as a paper towel dowel, Tupperware container, Styrofoam cup, pencils, pine cones and sunglasses to depict a peace sign, heart and smile.
“Happiness is always a theme. The show itself is joyful,” said Conklin-Wingfield as we admired the artwork. “It’s one of the greatest pleasures of my life being a part of the student exhibit, a privilege to be able to do it.”
Another collage by the Cutchogue East Elementary School depicts the color wheel, and features hundreds of tiny old toys. Fiber artist Laurie Lambrecht inspired a shape-shifting knitting collaborative by Westhampton Beach Elementary School.
Sag Harbor Elementary School’s fourth and fifth grades used textiles in the form of rug hooking to create an impressive wall piece called “Compass Rose,” symbolizing home and their nautical town of Sag Harbor.
Teacher Meg Mandel gave each student a piece of canvas and their own latch hook to keep. “They worked together for months to complete the installation,” Mandel said. “The act of latch hooking is also very therapeutic and was a great remote lesson for those at home.”
The design, which reminded the students of Georges Seurat’s pointillism, revolves around four colorful stars and a ribbon with the words, “May your heart be your compass when you are lost.”
The Parrish Art Museum’s “Student Exhibition” runs through April 18 at the museum, 279 Montauk Highway, Water Mill. Parrish Members have priority for timed admission tickets on Friday and Saturday, March 12-13; registration is open to the public beginning Sunday, March 14. To sign up online for a time slot, visit parrishart.org/exhibitions/2021-student-exhibition.
In addition to experiencing the 2021 “Student Exhibition” in the galleries, the museum is offering online tours and related programs:
360° Virtual Tour
Recognizing that students may not be able to visit the exhibition this year with their classes, the Parrish is developing a 360° virtual tour of the exhibition. This immersive and visually engaging online tour will enable the entire community to experience this dynamic exhibition.
Live-Stream Exhibition Video Tour
On Friday, March 12, at 5 p.m. Conklin-Wingfield will lead a video tour of the exhibition followed by a live-stream discussion with regional teachers. The panel includes Pam Collins, Southampton High School; Heather Evans, Unified Arts Department Coordinator, East Hampton School District; Robin Gianis, Bridgehampton School; Meg Mandell, Sag Harbor Elementary; and Dina Rose, Mattituck Jr-Sr High School.
Live-Stream Awards Ceremony
On Friday, April 16, the museum will livestream the awards ceremony recognizing select high school seniors for their talent and skill. Artist Neill Slaughter, a professor of visual arts at Long Island University, will present these awards, as well as “Ones to Watch” honors to underclassmen.
Guests must preregister for online programs at parrishart.org.
Participating schools in the
2021 ‘Student Exhibition’ include:
Bridgehampton School, The Children’s School, Cutchogue East Elementary School, Dayton Avenue School, East Hampton High School, East Hampton Middle School, East Quogue School, Eastport South Manor Junior-Senior High School, Flora and Fauna Project School, Gary D. Bixhorn Technical Center (Eastern Long Island Academy of Applied Technology), Greenport Elementary School, Hampton Bays High School, Hayground School, John M. Marshall Elementary School, Mattituck Junior-Senior High School, Miller Place High School, Oysterponds Elementary School, Peconic Community School, Raynor Country Day School, The Ross School, Sag Harbor Elementary School, Shelter Island School District, Shoreham Wading River High School, Southampton High School, Southampton Intermediate School, Southampton Montessori School, Tuckahoe Common School, Westhampton Beach Elementary School, Westhampton Beach High School, Westhampton Beach Middle School, and William Floyd High School.