A Day With the Placeworks Arts Initiative

Artist Kate Baird takes suggestions from Grandy eighth graders during the "peom" segment of their Placeworks lesson.

On a glorious recent fall day I had the privilege of tagging along with CFO’s Placeworks traveling artist Kate Baird as she visited the East Newton school district in Newton County, specifically working with eighth graders at K-8 schools in Stella and Granby (it’s a spread-out district; all students end up at East Newton High School, also in Granby). We wanted to get the essence of what the program is, and how kids respond. It turned into one of the most fun days of work you can possibly have.

First, a bit about Placeworks:

The program is in its second year of bringing hands-on, cross-curricular arts lessons to students in rural areas. Baird, a former teaching artist at the Guggenheim Museum, the Kentler International Drawing Space and the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, visits classrooms in districts with ties to the RSP program free of charge (contact Julie Leeth to learn more about how and if your district can qualify). Using input from teachers, she develops a lesson that combines artistic concepts with other areas of study. The result is an interactive, interdisciplinary session that kids will remember.

For example, across the East Newton district, students are focusing on the Civil War and its 150th anniversary in a variety of ways and classes. This was Baird’s “starting point” for the lesson.

Fortunately, the Civil War was an interesting period not only for history, but for art. Photography was a new invention in the 1860s, and the Civil War was the first time anyone had ever seen real images from the battlefield. However, reproducibility, quality and convenience were still problems with cameras that weighed hundreds of pounds and printed on tin, so drawings and renderings of battles were still far more common in the newspapers.

So Baird handed out two prints: One of a famous photograph by Matthew Brady, the other a sketch drawing from the time by artist Alfred Waud. Students were asked to compare and contrast the images through both rapid free-association and a longer, more detailed study.They wrote their thoughts down on pieces of paper, which Baird collected.

A few things jumped out (according to the kids):

— The photograph was blurry where objects were moving, while the drawing was (impossibly) crystal clear. The quality of old photography and clarity from distance was discussed.

— Students talked about what they thought the figures in the photos were doing. One looked like a general, ahorse with his arm raised. Many others looked wounded, or were struggling with their shoes.

— The fact that you couldn’t see the trunks of the trees in the background of the photo indicated it was taken on a hill.

In a final exercise, the words students were asked to write down on a piece of paper upon first seeing the artworks were arranged in poem form, with input from the group on when to break a line; it was like improv with words and pictures. For example:

“Sad.” “Depressing.” “Sad.”
“Horse.” “Tree.” “Sky.” “Sad.”

This is just one example of a Placeworks Arts Initiative class; every school, lesson and session is different. Click here to learn more about the program, which has closed its latest round of applications but will be accepting new ones soon.

With further questions, please contact Julie Leeth at (417) 864-6199, or e-mail jleeth@cfozarks.org.