A symphony of swooshing sandpaper poured out of Dawn Schiro’s art classroom in Tapestry Charter School on Wednesday morning as eight high school students worked feverishly to complete a new permanent sculpture for the building’s bustling main corridor.
In its uncompleted form on the dusty floor of Schiro’s classroom, the sculpture looked like a collection of comically oversized linguine noodles. But over the course of the week, students turned the 20 or so separate pieces of molded white ash – soaked in water for eight to 10 hours and then twisted into surprisingly airy ribbons – into one seamless sculpture.
Overseeing the whole operation was Jeremy Holmes, an Ithaca-based artist whose molded-wood sculptures have appeared in public spaces and galleries around the world. He first visited Tapestry last October to work with a group of 30 middle schoolers on a massive sculpture of ribboned wood that now hovers above the school’s main lobby.
The project went so well, and students were so enthusiastic about it, that Tapestry teachers and administrators invited Holmes back to work with high school students as part of the school’s yearly intensive program.
During the past week at Tapestry, students spent several days working on one of 27 projects ranging from Holmes’ hands-on art studio and fellow art teacher Edrys Wajed’s hip-hop workshop to lessons in horseback riding or mechanics.
Holmes, a soft-spoken 28-year-old who grew up in Cooperstown and later attended New Paltz State College, said his first project at Tapestry captured the imagination of the school’s younger students.
“Everyone that wasn’t involved with it would stop and ask a thousand questions,” he said. “Everyone was real excited about it, so it kind of energized the whole school, and the kids that were working on it were very proud that they were going to get to be a part of this thing that was going to be there permanently.”
The same principle applied to the smaller group of students who worked on the latest sculpture project this week. For senior Paige Ogden, who said she wants to pursue a photography career after graduation, the sense of ownership over the project was one of its main draws.
“This is something we created,” she said, “and in that way, we’ll have it hanging in our school so other people will see it. We have lots of visitors, so it’s kind of like spreading it through the community.”
For Schiro, who has taught at Tapestry for a year, the school’s integration of the arts into the curriculum gives students a much firmer grasp on the role of the arts in the real world.
“This is a dream. It’s a dream for an artist to not be the bad kid in the corner just coloring in the art room. It’s really valued here as a way of learning,” she said. “I think our kids are much more in tune with the real world and they’re much more excited about coming to school, and they get to actually go out into the community and do things in the community, and I think that has them taking a little bit more ownership over their education as opposed to the teacher just telling them the same thing.”
That was the main motivation for sophomore Isaiah Jackson, whose penchant for building led him to pick Holmes’ project. (It was his second choice, after an intensive project that involved touring important historical sites around the city.)
“Bending the wood is probably my favorite part, just because getting something that naturally doesn’t come like this to bend and twist is not something you usually see very often,” said Isaiah, who was also working on a smaller sculpture on his own to give to his father as a birthday gift. “I was very intrigued. I lost 10 pounds sanding this wood.”
Holmes, Schiro and the school’s arts faculty agreed a chance to work with a hands-on project gives students insights and experience that traditional, memorization-based art classes lack.
“I always felt I was more of a hands-on builder, and that’s one thing I like about this project,” Holmes said. “It just gives them another angle to look at things. And I think also working on a collaborative project, where everyone’s involved in one project, they might not realize it as they’re sanding it and putting it together, but after it’s done they’re all going to feel like they’ve been a major part of it.”
During a short break from sanding, Isaiah reflected on the accomplishment he and his fellow students would leave behind.
“To be able to leave something when you graduate, and come back, to be able to look at it and say: I did that.”