Lost & Found brings activism to the classroom and beyond through sculpture
A collaborative project between local artist Sinéad Cahill and the Albert M. Greenfield School, Narrative as Soft Sculpture, focuses on students, schools, and activism in and beyond the classroom. Ilana reports.

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Lost and Found student work, image by Tim Gibbon.
Lost and Found student work, image by Tim Gibbon.

Narrative As Soft Sculpture was a semester-long collaboration between the students of the Albert M. Greenfield School and local artist Sinéad Cahill, masterminded by art teacher Sunnylee Mowery. The experience culminated in a public event, Lost & Found, on May 31st.

Arranged outside on the school’s playground, Lost and Found presented a rainbow array of small, hand-sewn felt pillows, each containing a handwritten narrative on the colorful side and a white-on-grey hand-printed image on the other. Responding to a list of questions, the students were asked to write a story and illustrate it. Themes the students could choose to write and illustrate included: a time they needed to be brave, a time they were lost, an encounter with someone who was ideologically different from them, and a moment they learned something about themselves through a conversation. These narratives provide a fascinating look into the minds of the children, their fears and moments of pride. Some of the stories were very personal, touching experiences like facing the death of a relative and the fear of being new to America and not knowing English. The little pillows hung in the schoolyard, clothespinned to a ring of rope, strategically arranged so that the images faced outwards, but the students’ stories could only be read by going inside the ring. Entering the ring provided the illusion of entering a sort of private space to read personal and diaristic stories, despite actually being in the middle of a chaotic schoolyard at 4pm on a school day.

Lost and Found student work, image by Tim Gibbon.
Lost and Found student work, image by Tim Gibbon.

Hanging from many of the eighth-graders’ works were tags displaying QR codes. By scanning the codes, I was transported to the project’s Soundcloud page, where I heard the students narrate their stories in their own voices, to the accompaniment of atmospheric music in the background. Innovative and engaging, this was one of my favorite features of the work. I was even more impressed to find that two talented eighth graders, Andrew S. and Aaron M., produced all the background music specifically for the project and each have their own independent music practices.

Activism

Lost and Found student postcards, image by Tim Gibbon.
Lost and Found student postcards, image by Tim Gibbon.

A few feet away from the installation, the participating students had set up a booth for an activist swap; write an advocacy postcard and get a button in return. The postcards targeted Pennsylvania government officials with language protesting public school budget cuts, particularly relating to limited arts resources. Postcard writers could choose to make their own button, or pick a button made by a student. By the end of the afternoon, the school had collected more than one hundred postcards to mail.

Lost and Found button, image by Tim Gibbon.
Lost and Found buttons, image by Tim Gibbon.

I spoke with fifth grader Beatrix A. and eighth graders Andrew S. and Blake F. about their experiences working on the project. The students unanimously praised the project and its organizers, saying Mowery was a standout teacher. Blake F. shared that the students were initially apprehensive about working with an artist outside their school and didn’t know what to make of Sinéad, but once they began working with her on the project the classroom really came alive. Beatrix A. was proud to have her work shown publicly and felt encouraged to continue pursuing creative practices. Andrew S., one of the two musicians in the group, said working with Cahill changed his views on the purpose of art; the partnership made him come to see art as a public good rather than a mandatory class or hobby.

An Interdisciplinary Approach

The semester-long project, Narrative As Soft Sculpture, addresses some pressing issues in the public school system, with an unusual approach involving the children themselves. This was a great introduction for the young people of Greenfield to enter discussions of politics and advocacy, and empowered them to be vocal about the quality of their education. Parent Liza Herzog brought up the excellent point that the arts should be integrated into curricula; although primary and secondary school classes tend to be segmented by subject, in reality the world is rarely so black and white. Successful visual, performing, and literary art tends to reach across many disciplines, and quality instruction reflecting that should be the norm — included in the public school budget — and not an add-on available only through a grant from a private funder.

This project received support from both the Fleisher Art Memorial and Fabric Workshop and Museum, and was funded by the Picasso Grant offered by PCCY.

Tags

activism, philadelphia, Public Schools, sculpture, Sinéad Cahill

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