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Hunter Webb works with Kendall Toney, a kindergarten student in art teacher Cindy Edmonds’ class at Randolph Elementary. Photo by Beth Ferguson
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Clinton Helms and his painting for Byrd Elementary Photo by Beth Ferguson
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Bland Cope demonstrates the craft of making silhouettes to Goochland Elementary pupils. Photo by Beth Ferguson
Furniture and cabinet maker Hunter Webb positions a walnut slab on an art room table as 18 Randolph Elementary fifth-graders file into the room and grab seats. He starts smoothing the wood with a tool that he explains is a spoke — "like the spoke on a wagon wheel" — and then hands it off to a student.
"What makes a bench a bench?" Webb asks, watching the hands fly up. "A bench can fit more people," a girl says. Webb nods his head in agreement before fielding another student's question. "What's the easiest type of wood you've worked with?" a boy asks. "Walnut," Webb answers, smiling.
Many counties have made cuts to arts education because of testing demands or budget constraints, but the Goochland County school system is taking a different tack.
Webb is one of three artists participating in the Artists in Residence program in Goochland. The visual-arts program started in January at Byrd, Goochland and Randolph elementary schools. It is the brainchild of Dr. Stephen Geyer, the county's director of elementary education, who had experienced a similar program in Clark County, where he served as elementary-school principal. He proposed the idea in Goochland after coming to the county school system in July 2011. The system covers the cost of materials, and artists receive a small honorarium. "It basically covers the cost of their gas," Geyer says. "All of these artists are committed to our schools and to our kids."
One of the first county residents Geyer called when he began planning the program was retired art teacher Sandra Trice Barkley. "She was very excited about the program and came up with a list of artists that might be interested in serving," says Geyer. "We narrowed the list down to three. We wanted to focus on folks who were residents of Goochland because we wanted to build relationships with the community of artists that live in the county."
Barkley has kept the momentum going through all of her time and effort working as a volunteer. "She is in those schools when the artists are there to make the program successful," Geyer says.
All of the artists travel to their designated school either once a week or once every other week, spending a half-day at school working on their projects. Teachers bring their students into the room to watch and learn.
"The children get the opportunity to see the artists in action," Geyer says. "Students benefit from seeing the beginning, middle and end of a project."
The work each artist is doing complements the Standards of Learning curriculum. "If kids can make connections, that is when real learning takes place," Barkley says. "All children learn in different ways. When they see anything live, they can remember that."
When the program winds down in May, the artists will present their piece of art to the school.
Each of the artists comes from a different field. Webb, for example, owns The Clearfield Co., which makes furniture and cabinets. He asked to complete his residency at Randolph, where his two daughters, Natalie and Caroline, go to school. "It's a lot of fun showing the kids what I do," he says. "Kids at that age don't have any hands-on experience with hand tools."
During his sessions, Webb fields all sorts of questions. "It's funny," he says. "The kids are always interested in how much stuff costs, as well as how heavy the wood is and how hard it is. They always tell me that their daddy has a bunch of tools in his garage."
Cindy Edmonds, Randolph's visual-arts teacher, loves the fact that Webb takes abstract concepts in subjects such as math and brings them to life in front of the students. When he was designing the bench, for example, he told them he had to consider the angle of the seat back. "He creates a spark of interest," Edmonds says. "It's nice to see them connect with him personally. It's great for me because it helps reinforce concepts that I have been teaching."
Webb wanted to participate in the program because it was an "opportunity for me to show young people how people make things by hand to share the joy of artistic creativity with children," he says. "You don't have to go to Wal-Mart or somewhere else and buy everything. You can do something unique."
Clinton Helms works with the students at Byrd Elementary. An adjunct professor in the fine-arts programs at Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia State University, Helms knows firsthand the importance of introducing children to art at an early age. He started painting when he finished elementary school. He agreed to participate in the program, he says, because he "wanted to encourage the kids to keep up their art."
Helms is creating two acrylic murals featuring a timeline of Virginia's history. They will hang on one of the hallways in the school, and their presence will coincide with Virginia history SOLs. "I wanted to make my work part of what they were studying," he says. "They recognize what's going on in the mural. They recognize [various] images such as the eight presidents, the Indians and Jamestown."
To help students get a feel for his work, Helms brings in other paintings he has created. "I talk to the kids and let them know my process such as what paint I'm using," he says, adding that he uses watercolors and pastels as well as acrylics. Being at the school is important to Helms: "I let the kids know someone cares."
Students at Goochland Elementary are learning about silhouettes as they watch Blane Cope, who owns Art a la Carte, create her art by using an X-Acto knife. "What interested me was that there is a lot of history involved with the art form," she says. "As an educator, I value the exposure for children to see firsthand how an artist uses a craft to make a living and carry the culture from one generation to the next."
Cope says she hopes to teach the children to appreciate the art form. "We have had many discussions over the history of silhouettes, ranging from where the name silhouette came from, who made this art form so popular and how silhouettes were oftentimes the most affordable means for depicting family members before the invention of a camera," she says.
She demonstrates her art by having a student pose for a silhouette that she will add to the collage of the life and times of Goochland Elementary that she is making for the school. The framed piece will incorporate numerous silhouette images, including those of faculty members and students engaged in various learning activities like painting or playing a musical instrument. "I see this as an opportunity to leave behind a legacy for Goochland County, a county I have loved and appreciate for over a decade now," she says. "It is fun to think that some of these students in the artists-in-residence program will have children someday who will also enjoy this work of art when they attend Goochland Elementary."
Impressed by the program so far, Geyer wants to see it continue for years to come. He is currently working on securing a three-year commitment from the artists now participating. "Since word of mouth has gotten out, some artists have called to say they want to be part of it in future years," he says.
Cope and her fellow artists share the same enthusiasm. "This venture is both an honor and a privilege," she says.