December 05, 2016
Artist Nadine Flagel of Pretext Studio recently planted the seed of creativity at her son's school through her Legacy Tree project. Supported by a Creative Spark Vancouver grant, funded by the City of Vancouver and disbursed by ArtStarts, this project was full of "firsts" for Nadine as an emerging artist: the first time she tested out her teaching skills on a large group of children, the first time she made art for a public space, and the first time she worked collaboratively! We asked Nadine share some reflections about the experience with us...
Hi Nadine! Can you tell us a bit about your project?
The Legacy Tree is textile art, made out of cardboard wrapped with quilt batting and quilted, reused fabric. It is mounted over a reading nook in a corner of Charles Dickens Annex, a small school in East Vancouver. In workshops in May and June 2016, I helped students plan and sew leaves for the tree. In so doing they learned about fabric and the stories it tells and about elements of design. Although I did some machine sewing and assembly in the studio, students assisted in bringing the whole tree to life.
This project brought cozy surfaces into the classroom to soften a physical environment dominated by hard, unnatural surfaces; it also symbolizes the "schoolhouse" learning culture. In the schoolhouse-style classroom, older children mentor younger in emotional, social, physical and intellectual maturity. Because some students and their parents have been part of the classroom for several years, a self-sustaining culture—similar to sourdough starter—nurtures incoming students.
Who participated in this creative project?
22 students in Grades 1, 2 and 3, and two teachers. I completed this project with my son's class in his final year (Grade 3) at the school. It was wonderful to give back to the school, to see my son's pride in my skills, and to spend time bonding with his classmates.
Have you ever worked with young people before? How did you find this experience?
I have considerable experience teaching at university, and some experience making side-by-side art projects with my children. Working with youth was similar to working with adults: breaking down a task into basic steps, providing demonstration, facilitation and guidance, fielding questions, and documenting the work. (You can read more about the technical aspects of the project and construction here.)
One big difference was the higher number of interactions and level of help needed. After sessions, I often felt I had been in a whirlpool, but the teacher reassured me that what seemed like chaos was a calm and organized session. Another significant difference was that this project had a simple "message" or "meaning"; I teach older students that art cannot be reduced to a meaning.
How did workshop participants respond to your project?
Students loved examples I brought in of "making fabric work harder": blankets made out of soft sweaters and hooked rugs made out reused fabric. Primary-school aged youth are especially receptive to reusing fabric and the sensual appeal of fabric, probably because they often wear hand-me-downs and because they still own special stuffies or blankies.
Students contributed worn-out clothing along with stories. They were enthusiastic about learning how to sew, though often frustrated during threading. Several advanced to sashiko-like techniques of making patterns with stitches. One youth commented, "Now I know how to sew by hand! I can show my mom." Another remarked, "That was awesome! I love sewing."
When the tree was almost ready, they imagined interacting with it further: "Maybe we could make pillows for the floor, and they could be made with fabric with leaves on it, so it looks like the leaves have fallen off the tree." They found the project inspiring: "The tree trunk has a pocket! Can we make a squirrel to hide in it?"
The most rewarding moment was the tree's organic acceptance into the classroom. Students and teachers were absent on a field trip during installation. They returned at 2:30pm to discover the completed tree. Somehow, before school the next day, bookshelves had shifted aside, tables and chairs had relocated, and a rug and cushions had taken up residence under the tree. Within twenty-four hours, youth had used the tree-sheltered nook for quiet time, for physical bonding and for reading. The beneficial impact on the physical and social organization of the classroom was significant. As I had hoped, the tree introduced softer, welcoming materials. I lost track of positive comments from parents and teachers, but my favorite comment demonstrates youth collective ownership and pride: "Our tree is beautiful."
What motivated you to apply for a Creative Spark Vancouver grant?
My family has enjoyed many of ArtStarts' weekend workshops and presentations, and I wanted to be more involved with the organization. I also wanted to do some new things as an artist that were consistent with my emphasis on sustainable textiles.
How has this Creative Spark Vancouver project impacted you personally as an emerging artist?
This was the first time I tested out my teaching skills on a large group of children, the first time I made art for a public space, and the first time I worked collaboratively! It adds a lot to my CV. I learned to let go of my work. Moreover, I learned to celebrate letting go, and to understand that other participants' involvement was not a loss of control but part of the vision. If you have an opportunity to facilitate change in the classroom and help students to collectively tell stories for sustainable change, I encourage you to take it.
What's next for you as an artist?
I recently rented a shared studio space where I have more room to sew and assemble large projects. I plan to visit the same classroom to help the next set of students grow the tree. I am also planning a larger project or possibly a sewing club for students at my son's new school.
I am doing more conceptual work on a quilt with the theme of sexual violence in postsecondary institutions. This project grows out of my concern for youth who experience sexual violence and my recent work as a member of the Advisory Group for Simon Fraser's new Sexual Misconduct Policy.
Apply for Creative Spark Vancouver grants! Grants of up to $1,000 are available for emerging artists of any age in any artistic discipline who are residents of the City of Vancouver, or residents and members of the Musqueam, Squamish or Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. Learn more and apply today at artstarts.com/creativesparkvancouver
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