Friday, November 12, 2010

Maine High School Students Create Holiday Ornaments for National Christmas Tree in Washington, DC.

With funding support from the Maine Arts Commission and the Peaks Island Fund, six high school students and two professional artists from Peaks Island worked this week to create ornaments representing Maine for the National Christmas Tree in Washington, DC.

Students from Peaks Island who attend Portland High School and Waynflete School had a unique opportunity to team up with professional artists Cole Caswell and Jessica George in their studio on Peaks Island to produce 26 ornaments that will be delivered to the nation’s capital next week in time to adorn the National Christmas Tree. The tree will be officially lit by President Barack Obama in early December.

Hannah Rindlaub, one of the student artists working on the project was enthusiastic about the work. “It’s cool to have an opportunity to represent our island, our state and our country all in one. It’s been fun to make art about place with a group that is tied together by place.”

As one of our country’s oldest holiday traditions, the National Christmas Tree Lighting began on Christmas Eve in 1923, when President Calvin Coolidge lit a Christmas tree in front of 3,000 spectators on the Ellipse. Since 1923, each succeeding president has carried on the tradition; however, the celebration has now evolved into a month-long event, presented by the National Park Foundation in partnership with the National Park Service.

This year the National Park Service requested that state arts agencies coordinate local efforts and the Maine Arts Commission selected artists Cole Caswell and Jessica George to head the project. “We selected Cole and Jessica because their process of art making is infused with a deep connection to sense of place,” said the Maine Arts Commission’s Arts in Education Associate John Holdridge. “This and the fact that they are both accomplished teachers in the art department at Southern Maine Community College made them ideal candidates to take the lead.”

After signing on to lead the project the artists received 26 six-inch plastic globes from the National Park Service and quickly set about gathering high school students to create the work to be sent to Washington. “When we started Jess and I had a short discussion where we each came up with an idea,” said artist Cole Caswell. “We presented our ideas to the students as a starting place and told them they were free to bend, morph, reject, or otherwise work with our ideas to create their own. It was a really exciting collaborative process.”

“There’s something about presenting your ideas in a group that makes it easier to respond because everyone is offering something,” said artist Jessica George. “Through a group process we made a community created symbol that speaks for more than one person. It’s collectively created imagery.”

As the process of collective art making blurred the lines between professional and student artist, the eight individuals in the studio set to work defining and creating their project. Creative energy moved from the kitchen, to the living room, to the paint room, to the laptop, to the beach and to the net cutting station. In the end the globes served as canvasses and containers for images and collections representing what it means to live in Maine through the eyes of island youth.

I feel like Washington is waiting for some lighthouses and moose,” said student Hannah Rindlaub. Her fellow student artists, Maria DeMichele and Neala Broderick, quickly followed as if speaking as one, “This is what we see every day. Lighthouses are how other people see Maine, but this is how we see Maine.”

Another aspect of Maine culture that came to the fore during this creative endeavor was the ability to involve all segments of a community through the creative process. This is evidenced in the source of the fishing net to which all of the ornaments have been fastened. “One of the lobsterman on the island told us about this place on the mainland called the desert,” said Cole Caswell. “It’s a place where all the local fishermen can spread out their football field sized nets for repair. There’s a mountain of scraps from the repairs and that’s where we got the net for the project. Hopefully the Park Service will respect our request to drape the net over the state tree but we’ll see about that.”

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