BRATTLEBORO—When Susan Calabria, the education curator of the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center (BMAC), takes small groups through the new exhibit, VT Kids Design Glass, she poses three questions to the young students.
First, she asks, “What is going on?”
Calabria sets enough time aside for children to think about and then really address that deceptively simple query.
Then she asks her second question: “What do you see in the piece to make you say that?”
She wants each child to back up a vision with tangible evidence before she asks her final question: “What more is going on in the work?”
Calabria knows that this exhibit is a great place to teach children how to appreciate art. It is created for young people by children, in collaboration with professional glass artists.
Imagination run wild
VT Kids Design Glass brings to life imaginary creatures designed and drawn by children. The exhibit features 12 glass sculptures by a group of New England glass artists as well as the original children’s drawings and descriptions that inspired their creation.
As Calabria explains, the exhibit was inspired by a similar project at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Wash.
BMAC director Danny Lichtenfeld wondered if the museum could do something similar here in Vermont, and Calabria took over the project. She went to several schools, including Oak Grove School in Brattleboro and Marlboro Elementary School, and got students to submit ideas.
“Over the course of the 2010-11 school year, we gathered a large stack of drawings of ‘imaginary creatures’ from kids in grades K-8. Twelve drawings were selected to be recreated in glass,” Calabria says.
All of the more than 200 submissions are on display as part of the exhibit.
Participating glass artists include Josh and Marta Bernbaum (Brattleboro), Robert Burch (Putney), Robert DuGrenier and Xander D’Ambrosio (Townshend), Peter Muller (Guilford), Chris Sherwin (Bellows Falls), Randi Solin (Brattleboro), and Andrew Weill (Manchester), as well as Charles Correll, Tucker Litchfield, and Joe Peters of Massachusetts and Gale Scott of Rhode Island.
The drawings selected to be made into glass sculptures are by Chloe Hull, Durin Hoyer, Rei Kimura, Cayden Learey, Isabella Lonardo, Zenia Muhammad, Jahvon Parker, Ethan Vodrey, Thomas Vodrey, Maxwell Weeks, Olivia Weeks, and Kathryn Wocell.
“Each sculpture is accompanied by a panel about each glass artist, and by its kid-designer’s original drawing and his or her short written description about the imaginary creature.”
For example, posted next to Randi Solin’s “Cube Dude” (2011), a glass sculpture based on a drawing by Maxwell Weeks, is Weeks’s original sketch and his cogent description of his artistic conception: ”The Cube Dude is made with cube [sic]. The Cube Dude moves forward.”
‘Honoring the drawing’
Calabria had few restrictions for the artists. Each piece, she instructed, should be limited in size to 12 inches in one direction, but more importantly, the glassmakers had to “honor the kid’s drawing” with all its whimsy and eccentricity.
The artists were excited about the project because so much of their normal glass work is done in craft and production, she says.
“Many glass artists produce functional objects such as vases, bowls, glasses, and paperweights,” Calabria notes.
“Creating a unique, figurative work of art from glass, on the other hand, is a challenge that may require methods and strategies different from an artist’s usual practice,” she says.
She describes the participating artists as “very generous with their time, materials, and perseverance in faithfully recreating their kid-designers’ drawings.”
The glass artists made two copies of their respective pieces: one for the child who contributed the original drawing, and the other for this art exhibit.
The 12 sculptures will be auctioned to raise money for BMAC’s ongoing work with kids. Bidding (in person or via email), which began Nov. 4, concludes during Gallery Walk on Friday, Dec. 2 at 7:30 p.m.
Art as a way of learning
Taking groups of children through the show is part of Calabria’s larger mission of using the museum to teach young people ways to appreciate art.
The last thing Calabria wants to do is lecture children. She does not want to tell them when encountering a piece of art what they should see or how they should feel.
She does want to teach children how to develop strategies to see for themselves what is remarkable in a work of art, and ways to develop critical thinking.
“Students find narratives in art, based on what they see,” she says. “In a facilitated discussion with a trained docent or museum staff, students engage with art as they bring their own experiences and observations to construct meaning.”
The theory for her educational project is Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS). According to the nonprofit educational organization Visual Understanding in Education, which promotes and engages in research in VTS, the teaching method “uses art to develop critical thinking, communication and visual literacy skills” using visual art.
VTS, the organization continues, “measurably increases observation skills, evidential reasoning, and speculative abilities and engenders the willingness and ability to find multiple solutions to complex problems.”
For Calabria, giving kids the opportunity and space to discover for themselves what is wonderful about art and museums, she can set them on a lifetime journey of art appreciation.
And VT Kids Design Glass lets her make the concept as simple as getting children to be able to see and therefore love art.