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Datebook: Climate-Inspired Exhibition Sparks NCHS Student Works

Stefen Robinson
Students Kacie Myers and Lauren Sanderson created a SolarFast print depicting a Little Free Library along Constitution Trail as part of an upcoming exhibition at University Galleries in Uptown Normal.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words — which is a good thing, because the students of Stefen Robinson’s Normal Community High School sociology class have a lot to say.

Starting June 1, the works of 53 of Robinson’s students will be featured at University Galleries in Uptown Normal. The gallery remains free and open to the public, but visitors must book an appointment.

Gallery Director and Chief Curator Kendra Paitz said it’s unusual for high school students to get the full gallery treatment. But it’s all thanks to COVID-19 — in a way.

“We had this funding from the Town of Normal Harmon Arts grant program that was supposed to be for field trip programs,” she explained. “And clearly we couldn’t subsidize bus trips here during a COVID year.”

So the students couldn’t come to the gallery. But Paitz wondered, what could the gallery bring to the students?

A graduate assistant suggested they reach out to Robinson, who has his own artistic inclinations.

It turned out Robinson found himself in a similar pickle.

“Before COVID happened, my class was structured in part around a project that I called “The Impact Project,” where they got to pick any topic they wanted, and they got to learn about anything they wanted, as long as they did it in a way that, they did some sort of social good,” Robinson said.

The pandemic put the project on hold, but Robinson still wanted to give his students the opportunity for some self-directed learning. He said they’d just finished a unit exploring the links between the economy and the climate crisis when Paitz reached out.

So when Paitz suggested the students react to the climate-inspired works of Chicago based artist Alice Hargrave, Robinson was all in.

“Like yes, absolutely, that sounds awesome,” he said. “And then when I saw Alice’s work, first online and then in person, I loved it immediately and was even more excited to do the project.”

“The Canary in the Lake,” the exhibition that’s been on display at University Galleries since March, features 20 of Hargrave’s “lake portraits.” The 10-foot long, gauzy fabric banners are eye-catching, printed with bright colors and unique patterns.

“But that’s to kind of draw you in and sort of get you thinking about the issues that they’re exploring,” said Paitz.

Those patterns are actually visual representations of hard data collected by scientists researching the effects of climate change on 20 lakes around the world. Some represent rising temperatures or mercury levels — others, decreasing shoreline or wildlife habitat.

Paitz and Robinson worked with University Galleries Curator of Education Tanya Scott to devise a two-month project for the students based on the themes and methods of Hargrave’s work.

“The material that we chose was solarfast, which is, it’s a photosensitive emulsion that you add to fabric,” Scott said.

Scott and ISU graduate assistant Aaron Caldwell created a video demonstration, along with materials kits, to help students translate their own data sets into works of art.

Robinson guided his students through the process of choosing their research topic and collecting the data.

“I have a student who’s really into music, and he had a hard time thinking of an idea,” Robinson said. “I was like, ‘Well I know you like music, you’re interested in live music, have you ever thought about the environmental impact of large touring shows?’”

The student created a band T-shirt for his project after researching the impact of his favorite band, the Grateful Dead.

Another student was interested in how much water it takes to make a single pair of blue jeans.

“She made this image of this pair of blue jeans, and then there’s like a price tag on it that says 10,000 liters of water,” Robinson said. “I think her project is surprisingly poignant, like, ‘Oh yeah, these jeans that I’m wearing right now have impacts that are beyond what I’m usually thinking about.’”

Students Kacie Myers and Lauren Sanderson decided to collaborate on their project.

“I knew that I wanted to do something that had a more positive outlook on it and something that meant personally more to me,” Myers said. “Both Lauren and I are involved in cross country and track for our school, so every day for practice we go on the Constitution Trail. And so that’s something that means a lot to me and her.”

Sanderson had the idea to survey locals about the trail.

“We asked them how often do they go to the trail...what activities do they do on the trail, and then also we asked how it mentally and physically impacts them, like if they exercise and if it’s just kind of a de-stresser for them to go out and walk,” she said.

The pair created two pieces, one depicting the Sister Cities Japanese Garden, the second a Little Free Library, both located along the trail.

Both students said they appreciate the experience.

“It was an eye opener of how important the trail is; I don’t think I’ve appreciated it enough,” said Sanderson.

“For me, I’ve never done an art project like this at all or had my artwork exhibited at a gallery before, so I think this is a really cool experience and a really cool opportunity,” Myers said.

Paitz said the project has been really cool for gallery staff, too, as a chance to bring into the fold students who might not otherwise have a reason to engage with “capital A” art.

The works of Robinson’s Normal Community High School sociology class will be on display at the University Galleries in Uptown Normal beginning June 1.

To try your own hand at the project, follow along with the demonstration video now available on the University Galleries website.

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