At the end of November, 2018, I spent a week in Grandview Heights, Ohio doing an art residency at Stevenson Elementary School. The residency was part of their 5 Columns project. The 5 Columns are physical columns located on the school’s front lawn. Throughout the year, various artists visit and work with Stevenson students to create art that interacts with the columns in some way.
The plan was for me to help four classes of Stevenson first graders (about 80 total students) construct individual fabric figures that would be seated on risers among the columns. The figures would be on display outdoors for two months, so we would use fabrics and sewing to make them sufficiently durable.
I began the week by showing the children my own figures and talking about the ways that I incorporated found fabrics and depicted emotions or memories. After that, the children began to construct their own fabric people.
Quite a few of the first graders said that they had sewn before, but many were learning a new skill. They learned how to control their needles and how to make stitches that would successfully join two pieces of fabric together. From the start, the entire group was very enthusiastic about sewing. They had a lot of fun and took pride in their work. I had hoped that they would enjoy it, but was blown away by their energy.
The first step was to learn to sew as they created the solid head and body that would form the core of each sculpture. Once that was complete, the students added arms and legs. They chose the fabrics that they would use and used their own creativity to decide what the arms and legs would look like. Next, we added faces using iron-on fabric. Last came hair and additional accessories and clothing.
There was plenty of room for individual creativity and interpretation within the scope of the project. The students insisted that these were not “dolls” when one classroom visitor mistakenly identified them as such. Every morning I was excitedly asked multiple times whether we were going to get to sew again. Teachers and parents reported that the students were talking about the project at home and in their classrooms.
As we wrapped up the week, it became apparent that the first graders had connected with their fabric creations. They had given them names and personalities. They gave their fabric figures hugs as they carried their artwork around their classrooms. The students were very upset by the thought of sending their creations outdoors to be displayed on the 5 Columns for two months.
Fearing many tears and some artwork snuck home in backpacks, we changed course and asked the children to make “Wanted” or “Missing” posters for their sculptures. The posters would be stand-ins for the artwork, which would now be missing from the 5 Columns because it was at home with the children. I thought it was a wonderful solution, and I liked the fact that it turned the project into a piece of conceptual art.
You can read more about the residency and the children’s “uprising,” plus watch a video of one of the young artists discussing his work by clicking here to read a story in the local newspaper.