Smile Politely

Stratton Elementary School is being wrapped

What would you say if your school was transformed overnight into a fantasy castle wrapped in giant fabric stripes? How would it feel to walk in those doors? 525 kids will find out in March at Stratton Elementary School in Champaign, officially “Stratton Academy of the Arts”, since it became Unit 4‘s magnet campus for fine arts in 2015. Yes, Stratton is public; it’s wildly enriched; test scores have gone up since arts magnet status, and some are among the highest in the district. And it’s open to any child in Champaign as part of their Schools of Choice program. Would you have felt different about your early school experience if each day began with a studio class of your choice — guitar, painting, dance, drama, knitting — and every subject from math and science to social studies was taught with an eye for art?

Pretty fantastic, I’d think. And that’s how it feels, walking into Stratton at 902 North Randolph any morning of the week. You’ll be met by a giant aquarium in the hallway, posters and murals everywhere, kids racing around full of energy, full of projects, full of fun. And it’s about to get even better. The theme is “Raising Visionary Voices,” and you can be part of it.

This Saturday, the mastermind behind the project, installation artist Amanda Browder (below) will be visiting from her home base in Brooklyn, with the experience, energy and savvy to pull it all together. Fabric donations from all over town will be matched by color and sewn into three-foot strips to cover the building for two weeks in March.

It was the inspiration of Jennifer Bergmark,  coordinator of Art Education and Clinical Experience at the U of I’s School of Art + Design, to bring Browder to Stratton (at left, Bergmark, with Browder at right; photograph by a Stratton student). Since 2014 Bergmark has welcomed the chance to place her graduate students at Stratton’s daytime and after-school art programs, for real experience with real kids. She believes that both the U of I and its students would do well to expand their sense of the potential impact of art beyond the classroom and into the community. Another partner is Anne Sautman, director of Krannert Art Museum’s Giertz Education Center. She opens the full resources of the museum to Champaign and Urbana schools through KAM-WAM and BAM programs (Week At the Museum, Day at the Museum).

Emily Young, magnet coordinator of the arts program at Stratton, has brought the project together in the halls of Stratton. She brings extensive experience in the community, with a painting degree and a masters in Art Education from the U of I. She is gratified to be able to bring daily experience of art into students’ core curriculum, not just as an adjunct program or a pricey afterschool class. Stratton is open to any student in Champaign, but is primarily a neighborhood school. It’s a minority-majority population; 25% are Congolese.

Browder launched the project on site in October. She, Bergmark, and Young orchestrated the first community sewing day, where some sixty people dove in to measuring, matching colors, pinning pieces, and sewing.

Her installation work focuses on public art as community building from all angles. These immense imaginings are made with fabric donated from their community; each piece has its story, and that becomes an essential part of the collaboration. On her last visit, Browder and Bergmark happened to be driving by Herff Jones, that locally produces caps and gowns for schools all over the country — and without hesitation they donated yards and yards of fabric. Now that’s community generosity.

Browder came to fabric installations through formal art education and experience, including a number of years teaching at the Art Institute in Chicago. Just as important is her focus on melding communities that don’t always talk to each other. As a young artist, she moved to Brooklyn where rent was cheap — but no longer! She realized that she was part of gentrifying a neighborhood that had a strong community culture long before her arrival. She tried with no success to get art collaborations going with groups in Brooklyn, until one day she decided to simply offer art from home.

She made a giant fabric waterfall to hang from her apartment window. Beautiful fabric billowing down a wall opened neighborhood conversations; and she finds the idea translates well in cities across the country. Here’s a sampling of what she’s done, from the Brooklyn piece to Buffalo and Birmingham, Alabama. Her intention is to immerse in the community, and introduce new ways for people to get to know each other through a compelling project. She has found Champaign-Urbana exceptionally exuberant and welcoming.

Browder can navigate the gallery world but laments its failure to open the world of art beyond insiders and wealthy collectors. Now she dedicates her energies to community collaborations, giving us the great fortune to host Chromatopia. She knows how introducing the “psychedelic experience” of vivid colors transforms the everyday experience of everyday surroundings. After March, Stratton will always carry the aura of having been a magical reality.

Browder believes that imagination is a essential skill and that the arts are uniquely suited to build the abilities we need moving into the 21st century: creativity, problem solving, and critical thinking. This is exactly what Stratton educators are instilling as they expand the art curriculum into every aspect of academics. Chromatopia will give its students the chance to take a unique ownership of their school and share their spirit on the streets and in the community.

In September, Unit 4 won a $9.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Magnet School Assistance Program to enhance the magnet programs at three schools: Franklin Middle School (STEAM: science, technology, engineering, arts and math), Garden Hills Elementary (math, engineering and leadership) and Stratton Elementary (fine arts). A central part of the plan is extensive training for teachers to integrate their building’s themes throughout the curricula. Chromatopia is possible with help from that grant and other collaborators.

Stratton students are taught how to be in charge of their own education from the very beginning. Offered a variety of studio art subjects to start the day on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, they write a letter of application for their choice — from drama, dance and music to studio art, knitting, recorder and more. The experience of different arts at Stratton builds a wide range of skills, from intention to application, problem-solving, entrepreneurial skills and budgeting. There is even attention to philanthropy and business plans. For each project, the students immerse fully from research to idea generation, production, critique, reflection, and analysis. And, of course, there is the art itself.

I visited Natalie Beacham’s third grade visual/public arts studio on a morning when students were immersed in preparing for Chromatopia. They carefully match colors and create patterns, measure carefully to three-foot width, pin the pieces together and sew strips for the giant wrap-around. Beacham sees confidence growing in her students as they learn to take risks and solve problems in real-life situations. Contact with professional artists like Browder shows them wide possibilities for careers and possibilities beyond the typical. Beacham values helping her students experiment outside their comfort zone, knowing that the results won’t always be perfect; and that skill comes with practice. They learn self-expression in many different ways, and truly blossom through experience in the arts.

74 Stratton students are busy pulling together a November production of Annie, the musical about life in an orphanage in 1933. To deepen their experience of depression realities, social studies classes are reading Out of the Dust, and students are curating an art exhibit of Works Progress Administration pieces. They will choose an “inspiration” photo from the WPA archives, research the living conditions and history behind it, and write a curator’s statement relating it to the story of Annie.

There are likely to be math exercises related to Chromatopia; on Browder’s first visit it was an adventure to make accurate measurements of the full height and width of the building for a perfect fit for the final wrap.

Clear your calendar for this Saturday and take advantage of the chance to spend some time with creative kids and adults. Try your hand at pinning and sewing, and be part of the magic of the best of Champaign-Urbana.

Community Sewing Day takes place this Saturday, November 11th from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. at Stratton Elementary School, located at 902 N. Randolph Street just south of Bradley. The event is all ages, and no sewing experience is required — just a love of color, kids, and community.

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