Behind Closed (Art Class) Doors
Behind Closed (Art Class) Doors

The student art show is always the most talked-about feature of ASF's annual Art Fair. But even the most-enthusiastic visitors may not be fully aware of the work and thought that go into the exhibit. Here we take you behind the scenes for a glimpse of how teachers and students are creating the amazing work you'll see at the fair on Nov. 11.

When ASF's 48th annual Art Fair rolls around on Nov. 11, the student art will once again be the most popular display. And why not? From the moment you step into the capacious Lower School Multipurpose Building, you almost feel yourself levitating from the sheer volume and visual impact of the objects on display. As you look more closely at the individual works, you can't help but feel moved by the skill and effort the students put into them. And they did it all with you the visitor in mind.

"It shows the excellence in arts and crafts that ASF students have from the earliest ages in the Early Childhood Center to the more developed styles in the Upper School," says Lower School art teacher Rodrigo Priego. "The level of creativity is just amazing."

Middle School Art teacher, Ivette Berentsen

And besides, the student exhibit is only a few steps away from the food and beverage stands. What more can you ask for?

But even with the burgeoning throngs and positive feedback, many viewers in recent years may not have been getting the full student-art experience. That's because what you see on display is the culmination of a demanding and deeply thought-out process that starts virtually on day one of the fall semester. Yes, the students are "expressing themselves," but they're doing it in a well-defined context with specific goals. For all the staggering variety, there's nothing haphazard about what you're looking at.

Not many know about the work and learning that lead up to the student exhibition at the Art Fair. Once you do, however, your appreciation of the work will soar, and your viewing experience will be all the richer.

So let's take a look at what goes on behind closed doors.

The Theme

It all starts with the theme. You may remember the recent Art Fair themes — "Heritage," "Motion," "Self." These aren't marketing buzzwords. The theme defines the context for all the creative work that the school brings to the Art Fair. It provides unity. It is selected with care.

Each year the visual arts teachers are charged with presenting a theme to the Parent Association for approval (the PA being the organizing body for the Art Fair). So it's merely a matter of getting probably the most talented and certainly the most creative members of the faculty to arrive at a consensus for a single theme that will determine the classroom work of each and every one of them for the first three months of the semester. What could go wrong?

Well, agreement was eventually reached, as it always is. So with a little inspiration from the recent 500th anniversary of the Thomas More classic we have a theme for this year's Art Fair: "Utopia." Most of the work you'll be seeing by students on Nov. 11 will represent some variation on that idea. Keep that in mind.

Art teachers, Mr. Rodrigo Priego and Ms. Jeri Lyn, guide some 850 students in the Lower School

As themes go, Utopia is eminently workable. It is at once specific — a Utopia is an ideal society imagined for the future — and flexible. In fact, in a sort of yin-yang model of existence, its opposite also comes into the picture. "There's Dystopia as well as Utopia," says Ms. Patricia Patterson, who as K-12 visual arts coordinator must strike a balance between enforcing the theme and allowing the teachers and students a certain amount of freedom of interpretation. "That way the kids who want to be more critical have a chance to express their ideas. It doesn't have to be all hearts and flowers."

True, but for the younger kids, hearts and flowers have a starring role. At the ECC, of course, the teachers play a more hands-on role in moving the work forward, though it's the hands of the kids that actually make the objects. Here's some of what you might expect from the ECC section of the student exhibit: An Emerald City-inspired castle, flora prints on paper made by placing live plants in gelatin, colorful rainbows made of objects and shapes, and a tunnel full of poppies.

As you can see, the ECC vision of the future is not only optimistic but filled with beauty. There's a certain advantage to not being able to read today's headlines.

Imagine

Moving up the Lower School, it's obvious that designing an art project for pre-teens around a lofty concept like Utopia is going to be a piece of work, especially when two art teachers (Mr. Priego and Ms. Jeri Lyn) are guiding some 850 students. "The challenge is the level of the students," Mr. Priego says. "With such a big idea, the first thing to do is make it familiar to them, something they can relate to."

So they talked about what an ideal future world might be like — people caring for each other, living in peace, no fighting, no violence, respect for diversity. A world living as one. (Not so different from the IB mission, if you think about it.)

To make such a Utopia, Mr. Priego says, you first have to dream it. The LS Art Fair project, then, will be based on a recent historical example of people who did just that. The choice may surprise you.

"We're doing the hippie movement," Mr. Priego says. "We're presenting the hippie culture as caring for all, as wishing for peace."

Lower School Art teacher, Rodrigo Priego

This is the world that the Lower School students will present in their artworks. "You may say that we're dreamers," Mr. Priego can't resist adding. "But we're not the only ones."

So what you'll be seeing at the Lower School area at the student exhibit are counterculture symbols from the sixties and early seventies, including VW vans decorated with peace signs, dream catchers which are the Native American objects made of string, wood and feathers, to protect against nightmares, and so on.

You cynics out there can stop rolling your eyes. Sure that movement didn't last long, but no Utopia ever does. What's important is that they dreamed the dream, and in so doing have bequeathed younger ASF students a way to explore an ideal.

"It was a utopian philosophy that was put into practice," Mr. Priego says. "It has had an influence on our culture today. Utopia may vanish like a dream, but it leaves a mark."

He was quoting John Lennon earlier, but he could just as well have quoted the Nick Lowe song best known from the Elvis Costello version: "What's so funny about peace love and understanding?"

A Shell of an Idea

What you'll probably notice first at the Art Fair from the Middle School are turtles. Ms. Ivette Berentsen, one of two MS art teachers (Ms. Susan Seibel is the other) explains why:

"Susan and I were having a hard time wrapping our heads around the Utopia theme. Many ideas came up yet none of them excited us to to the point necessary to excite the students. It was not until after attending a conference at ASF called "Mexicanos Contra la Corrupción" given by [the Mexican anti-corruption activist] Claudio X. González that we became inspired. The speaker finished his presentation with a sculpture called "Searching for Utopia" by Jan Fabre. This piece represents an oversized turtle ridden by a golden man. Both, are in search of Utopia.

Middle School Art teacher, Susan Seibel

"Mr. González made reference to the turtle as being a symbol for change because although change is slow, consistency is key. Also, change requires a hard shell to resist those against it. The turtle became our symbol for Utopia and our 8th graders are creating oversized turtles with shells that represent their vision of Utopia."

The seventh graders' emphasis will be on Monet's Garden, the pioneering Impressionist's personal utopian enclave in Giverny, France. "Students will be recreating one of his landscapes, including with three-dimensional paper flowers and a portrait of Monet admiring and enjoying his Utopia," Ms. Seibel says.

Cityscape

Leo Trías has been teaching ceramics at ASF for 17 years, so he's as familiar as anybody with preparing his students to a themed Art Fair show. The Utopia challenge is right in his wheelhouse.

"I asked every kid to imagine a building or vehicle of the future," Mr. Trías says. "What would you like Mexico City to be like in the future? Will it be catastrophic? It depends on your imagination."

That's an intriguing concept right there, and something to look forward to seeing at the Art Fair. But there's more to it than that. Once all the individual objects are finished and ready to go, they will be joined in an installation, a sort of futuristic cityscape. What's more, all five of Mr. Trías' classes — about 120 students — will include their works in the same installation. So it will be huge, which is what you'd expect for a model of Mexico City in the future.

Mixed Bag

There will be a lot going on in the Upper School areas, with something from just about every medium — including painting, sculpture, videos, animation sequences, drawing, the aforementioned ceramics, digital creations, and more. All will address the Utopia theme in one way or another, with one exception. Seniors in the IB arts program, under the guidance of Mr. Sean Buckley, will preview of some of the works that will be in their all-important IB Exhibition come May of next year. They will not necessarily adhere the theme. They will, however, represent the best work of the school's most advanced student artists.

IB juniors, taught by Ms. Patterson and Mr. Buckley, are usually given more leeway to come up with their own approaches, though whatever work they show at the Art Fair will relate to Utopia. But they — and most of the Upper School students, for that matter — may still be surprised by what ends up on view at the fair. "There's an energetic quality to knowing that you're going to be putting your work out there for all to see, but not exactly knowing what the final result will be," says Upper School art teacher Sean Buckley. "There's an element of surprise in there."

Another slightly offbeat display to look forward too is the entry from Ms. Patterson's fashion design class. "I'm asking them to make futuristic hats, helmets or crowns," she says. "They can be beautiful, practical, threatening or outrageous." Her 27 students (way up this year from the usual dozen or so) will show their creations placed on mannequin heads in a "boutique" of futuristic hats. That should be something to see.

An Upper School student during Art class

We should remember that the Art Fair projects are learning experiences. Lower School kids can enjoy making dream catchers, but they will also learn about the Native American traditions that created them. The Middle Schoolers will study the turtle shell's role in creation myths, and Monet's relationship to his garden. Ms. Patterson's hat designers are no exception.

"They have to do research on headwear from the past," she says. "They have to show me what from the past inspired them to design hats for the future."

Getting it Together

With student art playing a starring role in ASF's premier community event, the fair presents a priceless teaching and learning opportunity for what it really means to make art. ASF and IB agree that student art is meant to be seen beyond the safe space of the classroom. The Art Fair certainly brings that message home.

"I always mention early on that their work is going to looked at by thousands of people in one day," Mr,. Trías says.

For the most part, the kids are down with that. "It gives them greater motivation," Mr. Buckley says. "They pay more attention to detail and do better work. Sure there's a certain level of insecurity about putting your work out there, but even that agitation makes them want to push themselves"

Upper School Art teacher, Leo Trías, has been teaching ceramics at ASF for 17 years

That may be even more valid in the lower grades. "Children are bold, super brave," Mr. Priego says. "Their sense about showing their work is to become very serious about being an artist, and about taking the responsibility to show their work to people. They are very fond of the Art Fair."

The Art Fair also teaches Upper School and Middle School students the importance of curating — that is, organizing the viewer's experience. They finish the actual artwork in advance, and spend the remaining time deciding how to present it. That's another thing to keep in mind as you view the student art. The way it's arranged is purposeful.

During and after the fair, the students learn a valuable lesson that all artists have to accept: Once you display your work, it's no longer just yours. "You have an emotional attachment to your work, but after putting it out there in a public space, you are no longer in control of it," Mr. Buckley says.

Coming Home

Student art will be more prominent than ever this year because of a major innovation planned by the Parent Association as part of the celebrations of ASF's 130th anniversary. The major exhibit at the Fine Arts Center gallery, traditionally handled by an external gallery that would bring in the work of "name" artists, will this time consist entirely of work by former students. There will still be plenty of names, mind you, but they will be names intimately connected with the ASF community.

That means the "prestige" gallery at this year's fair will be organized internally, adding to the already full plate of the Parent Association. Volunteer helps is abundant, however, including from the Alumni Council and former ASF ceramics teacher Adele Goldschmied.

Ms. Goldschmied, a tireless ASF volunteer and regular exhibitor in the fair's community artists area, has been making the contacts and helping decide which alumni will be included (there are a lot of ASF alumni who became highly regarded artists). Many will likely have been former students of hers, and many will have created works for the Art Fair when they were students.

The age range should be impressive. The oldest alum represented may go back to the Class of 1952. The youngest will surely by Erick Daniels, the current ASF Student Artist of the Year, who graduated last spring.

"It will be a celebration of the impressive creative talent ASF has produced," Ms. Goldschmied says.

It will also be meaningful for today's student artists. "It's an inspiration for them to see these successful artists who were students here just like they are," says PA President Ana Elena Pérez. "There's a connection there because they share something in common."

Performing Arts

Another Art Fair attraction whose popularity has soared in recent years is the variety of performing arts presentations throughout the day. Students from ECC through Upper School will not only showcase the immense talent that permeates ASF from top to bottom, but also provide a different kind of uplifting entertainment for fairgoers The Art Fair will be a treat for the ears as well as the eyes.

The short performances will take place at staggered intervals at various sites on campus. (The fair program will tell you the times, sites and scheduled performances.) You'll hear choral music from the ECC singers as well as the Lower School and Middle School choirs. Middle School and Upper School drama students will perform improvisations and excerpts, under the direction of Rosana Cesarman and Stephanie Brownie, respectively.

The Art Fair teaches Upper School and Middle School students the importance of curating

The Lower School orchestra and Middle School strings and band will play, as well as the always-impressive musical assembly led by Kyle Pape, featuring jazz, choir, concert band and guitar.

Program details were still being finalized as of this writing, but some of the offerings will touch on the Utopia theme. Don't be surprised if you hear a version or two of John Lennon's "Imagine," which is practically the theme song of this year's fair, and the "Ode to Joy" from the final movement of Beethoven's Ninth, about as optimistic as music can get.