Whether the art is given to grandma or framed and put on the wall, Ken Murphy believes there is some big talent among Newfoundland and Labrador’s smaller citizens.
“I’ve walked in and stood there, seen it and said, ‘Kids did this?’” said Murphy, program manager for ArtsNL.
Wendy Shirran, a ceramic artist, wanted to teach the students at Elizabeth Park Elementary about Newfoundland and Labrador’s traditions after a drive through a subdivision proved to be uninspiring.
“Every single house looked the same,” Shirran said. “There was nothing … that said it was Newfoundland.”
Shirran says the richness of the traditional Newfoundland and Labrador lifestyle — of living off the earth, fishing and being in nature — is what keeps Newfoundlanders grounded as people, and she doesn’t want that to be lost.
“(There’s a) resilience when you have each other and you know how to relate,” Shirran said. “(In) Newfoundland … you have to learn to work with the elements.
Working from folk songs like “Jack was Every Inch a Sailor,” and folk stories provided by Dave Paddon and Dale Jarvis, Shirran and artist Veselina Tomova taught the students how to work with clay and relief tile, a sculptural technique dating back several millennia. It’s like an ancient form of 3-D art, where a material is molded into pictures on top of a background.
Along with getting the students familiar with the songs and stories, the process of making the art, which is not a Newfoundland and Labrador tradition per se, was an obstacle to overcome.
“I’ve had children look at a piece of clay and a blank tile in front of them (and) just get so emotionally overwhelmed, not knowing how to engage with it and express themselves, that they just start to cry,” Shirran said. “I’m like, ‘No, no no! It’s OK! Whatever you do, it’s not wrong.’”
Self-confidence can be a struggle for anyone, let alone kids learning something new, but if the quality of the work produced is any indication, Shirran and Tomova’s advice was heard.
With this newfound confidence in art, and familiarity with Newfoundland and Labrador tradition, the pupils’ hidden talents were given a chance to grow.
But they learned more than just how to make art.
“We had no behavioural issues,” Shirran said. “We really talked about what it is to negotiate with each other. The groups did a good job facilitating within, amongst themselves, what they were going to do.”
In time, the students became immersed in the process.
“Kids love clay,” Shirran said. “And when they get their hands on it? Sometimes, I could walk into a classroom of about 21 (or) 22 kids working on a clay project and it’s dead silent, and I’m going, ‘What’s with these kids?’ They’re just so entranced and engrossed in what they’re doing.”
This year, Shirran and Tomova worked with the Grade 6 class to produce clay and relief tile sculptures. The work will be shown at Elizabeth Park Elementary on Monday at 1:30 p.m., and is open to the public.
As for the next project, Shirran isn’t sure it will follow the same format.
“There might be something else that needs to be done,” she said. “So, I’ll start working on that.
“Who knows where else it could go?”