An opportunity to study and learn under some different and talented people does not come along often.
But thanks to Portsmouth High School art teacher April Deacon, her students have had several of those opportunities more than one time this school year. Not only that, she has made it possible for other teachers to share this unique opportunity, also.
There was a time when students studied under a stained glass artist. Then, just recently, teachers had two special ladies help them add even more to their teachings, helping students learn about themselves and make masks that show them about themselves. If this were not enough, everything students and teachers learned this year will be used in some way to fill the Human Rights Garden being built and continually being added to. The garden is a site set aside so that they can remember and visit for years to come.
For the past two weeks, students were taught by two accomplished women: Traci Molloy and Susan Camp. Molloy is an artist and education advocate from Brooklyn, N.Y., and Camp is a teacher at the University of Maine and an environmental sculptor. Both women had nothing but great things to say about the Human Rights Garden and the opportunity to share and be a part of it with the PHS students.
“Four and a half, almost five years, ago, I came to Portsmouth as a visiting artist and did a big project here with the student of PHS. And, that project was funded by Rio Grande University. This project, my return visit, is was also funded through Rio Grande and the Ohio Arts Council,” Molloy explains. “Basically, how I found out was very random. April Deacon had posted something on Facebook, and I said, ‘Oh, about the Human Rights Garden. Oh, April, that’s cool, that’s right up my alley.’
“My work deals with social justice, and a lot of my work has to do with identity — what’s it like to live in a community. I work collaboratively,” Molloy says.
Then she focuses in on one particular project of her collaboration with the PHS students.
“Students make pieces of poetry, so you see this poem, and it is written by 10 boys and it tells what it means to be a man and live in Portsmouth. Each of them have different lines, and then, as a class, we worked on it together, and this is going to go on a stone wall,” Molloy notes. “And then we are making a giant composite photo of each of the boys, and I layer them on top of each other. When it is all said and done, there is going to be one man made up of all 10 of them. It’s kind of morphed, and he represents what a man from Portsmouth looks like.
“I worked with the boys this time, and in the fall, I will work with the girls.” Molloy explains. She says the entire project is massive, and what Deacon has already done with it is fantastic.
“April works getting the grants, she makes everything happen,” Molloy points out. “Then she reaches out to other teachers and connects them to get involved, like I’m working with the 12th-grade honors English students working with Mr. Fannin. Then also Taylor Zempter’s women’s study class, who are the ones that will generate the women’s poem. Then Stephanie Warren, who works with high-risk middle school kids. We have reached tons of kids with this collaboration. The garden is for everyone.” She says she told the students that when they come back — maybe 20 years with their kids — that the garden is still going to be there, and they can point to what part they had in the garden. “You’re going to be part of the history of Portsmouth, and that is so powerful.” Malloy cited her previous work with children who lost their parents on 9-11, and now they are now grown and “they look back at what we did with them at that time.”
Also working with Deacon and her art students was Camp, who had the students make masks of themselves. While the mask project gave them insight into themselves, the students had particular fun making a mask of one brave Gerald Cadogan, an intervention specialist, swim coach and track coach for PHS. The group working with Cadogan had a blast watching him prepare for application of the final mask. Once he was ready, the students began the phases of applying the mask on him. They first put a coat of silicone called “Body Double” like is used in Hollywood, then they put plaster that acts as a cradle to keep the body double in the shape of the “model.” Then, the students who had already completed the masking on themselves applied paper pulp inside to make a paper mask of themselves. Finally, they put seeds inside the paper pulp mask, which is then planted in the garden. “They are going to be growing themselves in the garden,” Molloy observed. “So, literally, Portsmouth is growing its youth.”
One student, Brooklyn Green, whose mask was complete, said the project was fun, and she had never done anything like it before.
Camp showed the students a gourd sculpture she had grown, which was simply amazing. She wanted to have the students do some kind of self portrait, but the gourd would take too long, ”How do we do something with identity which ties with the conceptional piece we want to do here?” Camp asked. But because of the time factor, making the masks was the solution.
“The body double we used to make the masks can be used over and over again. They can do all sorts of things with it,” Camp says. Using the masks, Camp talked with students about what perception of themselves the masks show. Camp also says she does a lot more projects about food — who grows food, who has access to it, what kinds of food do we eat — so she does a lot with gardens and similar venues. She is also involved in a project growing gourds with her college students in Maine.
Both Molloy and Camp worked with the PHS students for nearly a week.
“They have been great, great classes,” Camp said of the Portsmouth students. “They’ve been excited, and they are willing to learn and try new things.”
Benji Davies from the University of Rio Grande explained how PHS received its grant funding: “We have an endowment, and we fund projects that bring arts to the area students, so we funded this to become part of the project and work with Deacon, Molloy and Camp.” He added that last fall, they brought with them a visitor/sculptor from Wales, and they have another artist who will be coming this fall. Like the others, Davies says Deacon is the one who did all the work and made sure this all happened with her students. Deacon said she is grateful for all Rio Grande and Davies has done for her art endeavors.
As for the garden and how everything will eventually come together for the students, Deacon gave the beginning and how it came about, and the first two phases they are finishing this school year:
The Human Rights Sculpture Garden is an arts-integrated interdisciplinary learning environment. Created by and for Portsmouth students, the project so far has involved hands-on activities for about 400 students in fifth through 12th grades, and offers instruction in eight different academic disciplines. To date, Portsmouth students have worked with five visiting artist and two visiting educators, and have conducted five field trips to enrich learning associated with the project. The completed project will include a large sculpture and decorative plant garden, a food pantry and a vegetable garden.
Completed in May 2017, Phase 1 involved creating the garden’s central space. Students planned the layout, designed hard scaping and landscaping, selected plants, and designed and created the artwork. The space includes a large scale central piece made of steel, bronze and architectural salvage created in collaboration with visiting artist Kevin Lyles. The space also created bricks with text, ceramic relief tiles, hand drawn ceramic decal tiles and benches for the space.
Scheduled to be completed this May, Phase 2 includes the creation of two small pollinator gardens. Spaces have been prepped to the north and south of the garden’s main space. Students have worked with visiting artist Traci Malloy to produce poetry and artwork which will be included in the pollinator gardens. Students also worked with stained glass artist Richard Plummer to create personal small-scale stained glass pieces and design two large-scale pieces for the gardens.
There will be two more phases starting in the fall. Deacon acknowledges that the primary funders include the Ohio Arts Council’s Teach Arts Ohio Grant and The Imagine Arts Endowment from the University of Rio Grande, and made it clear that none of this project would be happening without that support.
The garden, the visiting teachers, the way the students are working together to make this happen is testament to the importance and commitment to art. Add to that, a new group of students will get the opportunity to continue this work during the next school year as Deacon introduces new opportunities for her students to get involved. The Human Rights Garden, when completed, is sure to be a focal point of pride and a destination for many.
Reach Kimberly Jenkins at 740-353-3101 ext. 1928