Weilenmann art project leaves a towering impression
September 29, 2015
An art project at the Weilenmann School of Discovery has people saying one thing: "This rocks!"
Students this year have dotted the entryway into the school with dozens of cairns, made with stones collected near the school. The rock towers, intricately balanced and some rising multiple feet off the ground, have caused quite a stir.
"People started pulling into the school who had never been here before, because they saw the cairns and said, ‘What are you doing? What are these things?’" said Nathan Florence, an art teacher and "artist-in-residence" at the school who has led the project. "And the students’ parents, or whoever drives them to school, started telling them, ‘Oh, this is my favorite one, or look at this one over here.’ It became this conversation piece."
Florence has been delighted at how much effort students have put into the project and how much enthusiasm they have shown. But his initial goal for it was simple. He merely wanted students to find inspiration in their surroundings.
"The first thing to me that I thought of was having this location on the side of a mountain," he said. "It seems to me that if you have a school on the side of a mountain, then you should try to learn from that. See what the mountain has that we can use."
To help guide the students, Florence showed them the example of artist Andy Goldsworthy, who is renowned for making landscape art out of natural items such as ice, reeds, stick or pine needles.
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"We looked at the way he’ll go to a space and look at the materials he has," Florence said. "He’ll figure out a way to transform the landscape on a small to grand scale, in a way that if you happened upon it, it would sort of blow your mind. It’s got this sense of wonder."
The students then decided they wanted to use nearby rocks for the project. But they wanted it to be more than just a collection of stones tossed together. That’s how they got the idea to create cairns, which they came to view as symbols for their time at Weilenmann.
"We got into these great conversations about the history of these towers," Florence said. "They mark a passage or a path, which is ideally what a school should be. It should be part of your passage, wherever you’re headed. And hopefully it’s a helpful part of your passage, or at least give you some inspiration or tools you can use. So they got really excited about the idea that we can mark our own passage."
As part of the project, Florence assigned students to write "press releases" about the cairns, and their enthusiasm for building the towers is clear. One student, Reed Chamberlain, wrote: "Because of the different personalities of the students we made many different kinds of cairns. Some of the cairns were large rocks balanced upright, some were small one balanced on bigger ones, some people made lots of little ones, and some people make did something in between. With the help of these cairns we have made our school a better place."
But building them wasn’t easy. Florence said the students collected the rocks themselves, using only a wheelbarrow.
"We’ll have, like, five kids on a wheelbarrow with one giant rock," he said. "I’ll be like, ‘How did you get that in there?’ They get so excited about that."
Balancing the rocks is another challenge. But it’s one students have embraced. Many of the cairns are intricately placed, with some even creating arches. Florence hopes the project, and the attention to detail it has forced students to have, stays with them for a long time.
"I want them to learn to see," he said. "A minority of them will choose to go into art, but whatever they go into, learning to look closely at what’s around them will change their experience and make them better at whatever they do."
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