PORTLAND – The exhibition hanging in the Art Gallery at Waynflete School in Portland came about by chance and circumstance.
The artists who made it do not consider themselves artists, and they certainly didn’t set out to make art for public consumption when they began their project earlier in the fall.
But “Arboretum” is very much an art exhibition, and the two dozen eighth-graders who contributed have done a fantastic job expressing themselves artistically.
“Arboretum” involves 23 white trees cut from heavy-stock drawing paper. They hang on the walls and in formation in the center of the gallery. Walking through the gallery feels something like a walk through a bright, white forest. Each panel of paper measures 7 feet tall and 4 feet wide.
Because these trees are cut-outs, we are drawn to the negative space in the panels. With gallery lights flooding the walls, we see not just the white paper cut-outs, but also the shadows of the paper on the walls, creating a double-tree effect. The exhibition feels energetic and lively.
The project grew out of the school’s annual Leap week, a team-building process and immersion activity for middle-school students. This year, the subject for the eighth-graders was trees. They conducted all kinds of research about trees, including their environmental impact, their ecological value, their role as habitat for animals and the sacred nature of trees in certain religions. Jeff Tarling, the city’s arborist, came in to talk to the students about trees in Portland, and why some survive and others do not.
As part of the process, Waynflete art teacher and gallery director Judy Novey challenged the students to create something artistic from their research. She urged them to think about the form and rhythm of trees, and to visually represent their research through their work.
The catch was, they had to do it collectively. This was not an individual project, but a group project, and the final outcome would reflect the vision of the group as a whole.
The students — 50 in all — began with their own individual drawings of trees. Some created realistic images. Others came up with abstract and fanciful designs. Sketches in hand, the students then broke into groups of two or three and began merging their ideas.
The 23 panels are the result of that process.
I sat down with five of the students, along with Novey and teacher Jona Rice, to discuss the project last week. What struck me about our conversation was simply the idea that these students did not approach their work as an art project at all. It had more to do with science and culture than anything with a creative quality.
But as they worked through their tasks, the students said they felt their creativity willing itself to the fore.
“It was interesting to see all the ideas and creativity and everything working together,” said student Leana Taliento. “There was something about cutting the paper. The physical aspect of that process felt creative.”
“And as it started coming together,” added Ethan Piece, “you could see real art happening. It was a bit of a new experience for me. I have never thought of myself as an artist. It’s an amazing feeling.”
For Gail Johnson, her “a-ha” moment of arrival as an artist occurred when she and her peers hung the panels and invited the Waynflete community to see the installation. She felt proud of the work of the group, and was pleased to show it off.
Michael Michaelson enjoyed watching the project evolve. One day, he was doing research about specific trees and their relationship to wildlife. The next, he was using his eyes, mind, hands and innate creativity to make a physical manifestation of his research.
Elly Shivel felt similarly. “At first, it just seemed like another project that we had to do. It wasn’t anything special,” she said. “But now that everything is up, you see it as a whole and all the work that everybody put into it, and it’s pretty amazing.”
“Arboretum” has received a fair amount of exposure within the Waynflete community. A lot of folks have seen the show, and Novey opened the gallery for Portland First Friday activities last week. But the show comes down on Monday, and time is running out.
The students feel sad that their work is coming down. But the show has received such a strong reaction, Novey is having conversations with a couple of downtown galleries about moving the work into a more public venue.
“We’re looking for gallery space right now,” she said. “We’ll get something set up soon so more people can see it.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: