By Dawn Watson
With the famous exception of prodigies like Mozart and Picasso, great artists are not usually born. They are created.
But there’s more to art than that. While it’s been proven that children who possess an artistic bent can most certainly grow through exposure to the arts, it’s also been reported that even those who seemingly have little initial interest or comprehension of the subject matter can also come alive during the process of learning and exploration.
Simply stated, art is about much more than art, it’s about developing skills that help a person progress and grow in life. That’s why programs such as the “Student Exhibition” at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, which opens on Saturday, January 28, and is on display through February 26, matter.
Going strong for more than 60 years, the giant group exhibit, which includes the work this year of more than 1,000 young artists from all over Long Island, celebrates the imagination and creativity of school-age children and teens. The student-based effort is about immersing the children in the experience of creation and providing them with hands-on guidance and instruction, courtesy this year by a select number of the Parrish’s professional Artists in Residencies—Suzanne Anker, Anne Bae, Monica Banks, Ben Butler and Saskia Friedrich—whose work has been included in the most recent “Artists Choose Artists” offering at the museum.
The large-scale “2017 Student Exhibition,” which kicks off February Family Month at the museum, will feature works by students from 38 Long Island public, private and home schools. Student artists from Sag Harbor Elementary and Pierson Middle-High School, in addition to many other East End schools, are participating in the exhibition.
After taking a field trip to visit the museum, approximately 45 fourth grade students in Libby Lattanzio’s and Liz Surozenski’s classes would certainly agree about the impact that art can make, says Sag Harbor Elementary art teacher Keriann Armusewicz. Their site visit this past November resulted in an incredible experience for all, she says.
After taking in the “Artists Choose Artists” exhibit, the kids in both classes voted on whose work they wanted to use as inspiration for their submissions, eventually choosing the cake-like porcelain sculptures of artist Ms. Banks. They then began talking about structure and theme before they broke into teams to collaborate on their own museum-worthy pieces.
It was a tremendous experience for the students, Ms. Armusewicz reports, adding that they worked to choose what part of the creative process they would join. A math group designed the scale and shape of the works, a build group constructed the actual structures of the art, a design group developed the aesthetic of the sculptures, and a “topper” group designed and created elements that represented the agreed-upon symbolic themes of happiness and tragedy for the two pieces.
The children ended up learning even more than they bargained for, when, due to spatial constraints, the two cakes had to be combined into one, she reports. It was disappointing at first, but even the journey to the solution—to divide the cake in half down the middle—which came from a student during a group brainstorming session, ended up being a worthwhile endeavor. As a result of that necessary decision, the classes then studied artists throughout history who had to “pivot with their ideas,” reports Ms. Armusewicz.
“It was a great teaching opportunity. At the end, regardless of which group students had worked in during this process, everyone came together to help get the piece completed on time,” she says. “This type of collaboration allows students the opportunity to not only work together, but as a community solve a visual task that they themselves have dreamed up … to engage in-group problem solving on multiple levels whether it’s a visual problem, a structural problem, or an issue in meshing together the ideas of multiple collaborators in a coherent manner.”
Ms. Banks, who lives in East Hampton, also worked alongside about 100 fifth graders from the Southampton school district. She talked to those classes about working through emotions and harnessing them to create art.
“I use my artistic process to work through the emotions I am feeling in the moment,” she explains. For example, Ms. Banks says shared with them that she had made “Parchment Layers on Black Plate” when her son was ill and she was scared, “Tall Cake with Cairns” when she was thinking about a beautiful walk she took with her family on the beach and they collected smooth stones along the way, and “Dotted Cake with Four Tall Figures” when she was feeling lonely. “I aggregate the objects on porcelain cakes in order to pay tribute to the full range of emotions and events I experience, because every moment is precious, even the painful and scary ones.”
Honoring their own big or small moments, the Southampton students created their own sculptural pieces using small bits of white model magic, says Ms. Banks. They then assembled them on a painted cardboard “cake” to make a tribute to their moments—happy or sad, jubilant or angry.
“I really feel strongly that kids need art, not to become artists necessarily but for coping. I see arts education as an important public health issue,” says Ms. Banks. “By giving young people an outlet for their emotional lives, they are better able to cope with whatever comes their way. I truly believe that art can steer kids away from the self-destructive behavior that tempts them as they are learning to negotiate the emotional ups and downs of life. I’m so passionate about that.”
Even at the middle- and high school level, art can provide important opportunities for learning and growth, says Elizabeth Marchisella, who teaches at Pierson. Such instruction and exposure has provided an invaluable experience for her students, and for her too.
“They work so hard all year and it gives them a great sense of pride to be part of this exhibition,” she says, adding that the show also gives educators a chance to see what other schools are doing. “I’m always wowed by the Parrish submissions. It also sets the bar higher for our students and for us.”
Three of her students, seniors Eve Bishop, Ella Parker and Carolyn Hallock, will have their work shown during this year’s exhibition. She and her students are looking forward to the experience, she says.
The process of art is important for all students, regardless of their grade, says Parrish Education Director Cara Conklin-Wingfield. Because creating is about much more than painting, drawing, sculpting and such—it’s about exploration, learning and growth.
“The visual arts are a means of personal expression and communication for all ages,” she says. “We hope the exhibition inspires all our visitors to make art and helps our student artists form a lifelong appreciation for art.”
The Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill will open “Student Exhibition” with two receptions on Saturday, January 28. A Young Artist Reception will be held from 1 to 3 p.m. and the High School Artists Reception will be held from 3 to 5 p.m. Admission to both the exhibition and opening receptions is free for participating artists and their families. The group show will remain on view through February 26. Visit www.parrishart.org to learn more.