Friday, October 19, 2018

Glass and Fossils: An Artist Residency in Review

What does it look like to have the gift of an artist in the classroom for five weeks? Pretty awesome.

Student glass fossil
Thanks to the generous support of Vermont Arts Council, Alexandra Turner came to morning classes for grades 3-5 for five sessions. Over the five sessions, students examined intersections of science and art, rotated between stations that allowed experimentation and investigation of science and art tools and materials, and had time to reflect on the outcomes of their work.

Students began with hand lenses investigating the fossils and glass pieces Alexandra brought. They made guesses about how each was formed, considering how the different materials might act.

Students learned to use hand lenses to see details enlarged.
On the first day, students collected and pressed a selection of plants collected right at EES. Mosses, leaves, seed heads, and flowers were among the wide variety that artists collected.  These plants sat for one week inside a plant press, but could also be pressed inside the pages of a book. Our experimentation yielded that some plants were more likely to mold inside waxed paper, and more likely to dry well with plain old uncoated paper between them.

In the second, third, and fourth classes, students rotated between stations in glass cutting, botanical illustration, making plant impressions into a granular clay, and printmaking with plants.

Careful looking and observation
At botanical illustration, artists practiced looking at plants as a scientist would. The goal of careful observation is to notice details in color and form, and record those details in the form of drawn models.

Students could examine the long tradition of botanical illustration through many field guides and photos of the Blaschka glass flower collection.

Above are many of the artworks students created. They were invited to work with pencil, sharpie, colored pencil, and watercolor to complete their observations of plant forms and textures.  Here is one in greater detail, where the artist worked in graphite and colored pencil to blend the colors of the leaves and branch:

At the glass cutting station, Alexandra supervised students carefully cutting and measuring their glass to fit their plant's scale. It has been a dream of mine for a while to have students work in glass, and last year we studies both stained and blown glass artwork, so it was quite a thrill to have an artist who could bring this experience to our students.

Safety was paramount! Gloves and glasses kept children safe.
  The feedback from students about the glasswork was just what I had hoped- a mixture of surprise, delight, and trepidation that led to curiosity, confidence, and joy in the process.

Alexandra explaining to artists the use of the glass scoring tool.
After students layered their pressed leaves and flowers (or feathers, , or twigs, or mosses- students were fearlessly experimental!) between two pieces of glass, Alexandra brought them home to her kiln to fire until the glass just began to melt and fuse.

Inside the kiln before the first firing.
 At the printmaking table, artists explored a lesson drawn from and similar to the process of teacher Cassie Stephens, using brayers to roll out ink onto a sheet of contact paper, which they overlaid with selected fresh plants. Students could create any composition, and many created creatures, people, or letter forms out of leaves.

Students pulled two prints, a negative space print and then a positive, after removing the leaves from the contact paper, revealing the ink still hiding underneath.

Lots of pressure was needed to press down on the leaves, so students learned how to leverage their own body weight to impact the resulting image.

Here are a sampling of the finished positive/negative botanical prints. They have such a high level of detail that many plants are easily identifiable.

In the last station, students used collected plants to press impressions into a granular, sedimentary-like clay, which air-dried. After it dried, students painted the whole surface, then used a sponge to relieve the paint from the raised areas, leaving an excellent fossil-like form.

Here is a closeup of a hosta leaf pressed into the clay:

On their final day with of this residency experience, students used a diamond-tipped etching tool to add their name to the glass pieces they created, leaving a more permanent signature than the marker used initially for identification. Artists also reflected on the wide variety of outcomes, and on how and why some plants left behind only traces of ash, while others left the plant somewhat intact and not incinerated. Other selections left bubbles in the glass, and students surmised this might be from water in the plant boiling away after the glass has melted, and, with nowhere for those gases to go, expanded the glass into bubbles.

 Thank you so much to Alexandra for spending time with our students! It was a joy to try new materials and unfamiliar processes, and the experience has truly deepened students' connection to the land, plants, and geology around them each day here in Burlington.