Students make underwater art for the ceiling

Posted: Thursday, May 22, 2003

There's a fascinating group of creatures hanging out at Sears Elementary School.

A boldly colorful sculpture of fish and other sea life, called "Beasts of the Sea," is suspended from the ceiling in the front corridor. Over 300 people mostly young students worked on it, said Sears librarian Laurie Cowgill.

Anchorage artist Graham Dane was this year's "artist in residence" at the school. Through Dane's efforts, students, parents and teachers discovered the artists in themselves and created sea creatures for the hanging sculpture.

"They used cards, crayons, yarn, construction paper and colored markers," Cowgill said. "We were impressed at what can be done with everyday items on-hand," Cowgill said.

"We looked through science books and talked about what kinds of 'beasts' live in deep water. Rather than just getting kids to draw a fish, I suggested they think in abstract terms, and make a creature of whatever shape, color and size they like," Dane said.

Dane is an abstract painter and instructor of art history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

"Children's minds are fresh enough to embrace and feel through abstraction," he said. "When I show a child an abstract picture, they often see a whole story in it. But show an adult the same picture, and they usually say 'I don't get it.'"

In the hanging sculpture, three or four creatures are attached at different angles to each piece of yarn.

"This gives a greater field to look at," Dane said. "It's a riot of colors and shapes."

As a slight breeze wafted into the corridor, the hanging shapes moved and mingled.

It was like being underwater, among shimmering, brightly colored fish.

"This is a school of fish for a school of children," Dane said. "It was inspired by the painting called 'Beasts of the Sea,' by Henri Matisse."


One of the construction paper fish in the mobile.

Photo by Jay Barrett

Local artist Natasha Johnson assisted with the mural project.

"It's good for kids to see how their own piece of art contributes to the whole," she said.

"I emphasized that all the kids' input was necessary to create this mural," Dane said. "They threw themselves into it and really focused, with some interesting results. There are some simple shapes to incredibly complex ones."

Dane also painted a 4-foot by 24-foot wall mural of coils and spirals in bright colors.

The children discussed their interpretations of the painted wall.

"Some kids see this as a snake coiled up," Dane said, pointing to a large spiral shape. "Another kid said, 'It's a big fish with its mouth open, coming toward you, about to swallow you.'"

"Most people's concepts of sculpture would be like Michaelangelo's 'David' or a bronze statue," Dane said. "But this is an instillation it puts multiples together, and the pieces interact with each other."

Cole McCollum, a second-grade student at Sears, called his creation the "Moon-Tailed Wolf Fish."

"It has sharp teeth and a crescent moon-shaped tail," he said.

Cole said he was fascinated by the varying colors of sea creatures.

"They have a light side and a dark side," he said. "When a fish is swimming, the sun lights up one side, and the other side is in a shadow. The sunny side sparkles more when it moves."

Cole used bright colors on one side and toned-down colors on the other side of his fish.


Dane speaks about the importance of art education while standing before a portion of his abstract mural in the hallway of Sears.

Photo by Jay Barrett

Second-grader Morgan Tsch-ida said using her imagination was the fun part.

"Scientists don't know everything about the sea," she said. "They're not sure exactly what's down in the deepest parts."

Morgan invented a shark-like fish with tentacles for a tail. "A creature like this could really exist," she said. "Maybe it just hasn't been discovered yet."

Morgan pointed out other creatures with strips of curled or folded paper attached to them. "Those are the tentacles," she said.

Johnson's son Keir is a first-grader at Sears.

"I went to the community lecture where Graham discussed his work and his inspirations. I was blown away, so I jumped at the opportunity to work with Graham," Johnson said. "It was like a two-week workshop with a master painter, and I learned so much."

Johnson was impressed with Dane's ability to draw people in and get their creative juices flowing.

"Graham got everyone involved," she said. "All the teachers, support staff, and any parents who came in the room also became artists for this piece."

"Some of the children really connected well with Graham," Cowgill said. "It's great to see the light in their eyes as they find this way to excel and express themselves. Some may not be the most successful at reading or math, but they're brilliant artists," she said.

"It's like Picasso's famous quote: 'By the time I was 14, I could paint like one of the old masters. But it took the rest of my life to learn to paint like a child,'" Dane said.

A booklet highlighting Dane's artist in residence projects will be left in the Sears Elementary School library.

It has an image of amoeba-like shapes on the front cover, and inside there are photos of the students creating their "Beasts of the Sea."

Dane served as juror for a show at the Kenai Fine Arts Center in March of this year, and his paintings were recently displayed at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art.

"We were honored to have Graham Dane as our artist in residence this year," Cowgill said. "We're grateful for the generous funding this program receives from the Sears PTA and the Alaska Council on the Arts."

Dane will return to the Kenai Peninsula as an instructor at the Alliance for the Arts teachers' institute at Kenai Peninsula College beginning June 9.

Ann Marina is a freelance writer who lives in Kenai.

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