The Newport/Bethel Project, Co-Authored by Tegan Recker

This is a very special post because it was co-authored by Tegan Recker, a sophomore at West Clermont High School and a participant in The Newport/Bethel Project in June and July of 2018.

The Newport/Bethel Project was a collaboration between Francesca Fiore and Hillary Wagner of SOIL SERIES: A Social Drawing and Steven Finke of Northern Kentucky University (learn more about Steven Finke here), with generous support from Northern Kentucky University’s Spatial Arts Department and the Scripps Howard Center for Civic Engagement. The program’s premise was that high school students from Newport, KY work together with students from the Bethel, OH/Clermont County area to create artwork that would generate dialogue between the two sites and ask important questions about history, identity, and place. By placing these two sites in relationship to one another we hoped to reach across historic borders and call attention to the area’s complex histories as well as invite communication between the area’s urban and rural communities. We hoped this dialogue would result in increased sensitivity and awareness of cultural differences, heightened critical thinking skills, and a deeper understanding of history and place. 

Below is a brief summary of the program with images of the process, as well as Tegan Recker’s interviews with participants.

 


Process

On the first day of the program, participants from Newport and Bethel arrived at the Bethel Historical Society and Museum and received a tour by one of the founding members. Participants sketched museum artifacts and were asked to consider their relationship to their home, its history, and art. After, we ate lunch in Burke park and shared our sketches as well as sketches of objects the participants brought from home. This activity allowed us to get to know each other by sharing our experiences and noticing how they affect our relationship to objects.

On the second day Chris Harris with the city of Newport met us at the Newport History Museum for a tour. The group received a very comprehensive tour of the premises, with a focus on the history of the Southgate Street School, the first and only school for black students in Newport, which operated from 1866 to 1955. As the museum is characterized by its architectural elements and is in stark contrast to the Bethel Museum’s abundance of objects, we focused our sketching on negative space. We briefly discussed Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space and the concept of phenomenology. We also talked about why a place like the Southgate Street School might be marked by absence rather than presence. After, we walked to General James Taylor Park on the Ohio River to have lunch and discuss our experiences in the museum. At the park we discussed the Situationist International and performed a dérive (read more about the dérive here) along the river, mapping our experiences as we went. We talked about the importance of the river as a historical border and crossing, and our own relationships to it. Finally, we performed an activity called “False Binaries” (modified from My Barbarian’s “The Audience is Always Right”) in which we shouted out two seemingly opposite things (sometimes obviously flawed as binaries) and asked participants to place themselves physically on the spectrum between the two binaries. By the end of the second day we were ready to take our experiences with these two sites and their histories into the studio.

On the third day all participants arrived at NKU’s campus. This was many of the participants’ first time at NKU so we began the day with a short tour of the Sculpture and Ceramics Building led by our amazing NKU student assistants, Jessica Holtman and Elizabeth Rachford. In the studio local sculptor and Associate Professor at NKU, Steven Finke gave an introduction to the project and demonstrated how to model a skull in clay at ¾ scale. Participants worked in pairs to model each other’s faces, although low attendance from the Newport participants meant not all pairs represented both places. Instead, we tried to pair everyone with someone they didn’t know so the modeling process could act as a vehicle for forming new relationships. To facilitate in-depth discussion and help participants think more deeply about how they might visually interpret their partners, we asked pointed questions of the group and the pairs discussed their answers with each other. This exercise helped break the ice and participants began openly talking about their life experiences and their relationships to place and home.

Participants worked on modeling their partner’s likeness in clay over three days, finally adding and subtracting interpretive elements based on conversations with their partner and their visits to both sites. Some participants chose to make minor alterations to their sculptures such as adding objects or carving into their sculptures – while others chose more drastic alterations such as cutting away pieces of their sculptures or modeling entirely new elements to add. One participant chose to represent her partner as an old woman because she felt her partner was wise beyond her years and had a stoic elegance usually found in older people. 

While on campus participants were able to eat in one of NKU’s cafeterias and see more of the campus. 

On the sixth day we began the process of making waste molds for our sculptures with the guidance of Steven and the help of Jess and Liz. This was the participants’ first experience with mold making and plaster, and Steven walked the group through the process of applying flashing to the sculptures, mixing the plaster, adding bluing, and then splashing the plaster on the sculptures to begin building the mold. This day was by far the most physical, and the group worked constantly throughout the day, breaking only for a short lunch. The participants all completed the two halves of their molds by the end of the day and left them to dry.

When we returned the next day the molds were ready to be opened and Steven walked the group through the process of removing the clay, cleaning and prepping the molds with oil-based soap, and reconnecting the two sides with plaster. The molds were left to set over lunch, after which Jess and Liz gave the group a tour of the Fine Arts building. This was a very exciting experience for most of the participants, as many are considering applying to art school in the future and they were able to learn more about what that might look like. After the tour we returned to the studio and learned how to pour plaster in the molds. A metal rod was included in the sculptures to prepare for mounting.

On day 8 the plaster was set and Steven demonstrated how to break the waste molds and reveal the finished cast underneath. Some of the molds came off easily, while others were much more difficult and a few sculptures ended up losing pieces in the process. Some participants made ceramic butterflies and used found objects to mask the missing parts.

On the last day participants mounted their sculptures on donated vintage desks. Steven introduced the group to the wood shop and demonstrated how to use a variety of tools. In pairs, participants worked together to connect their two desks – “bridging” their disparate experiences. We provided a selection of found materials for participants to work with, and the day was spent developing their concepts and building onto their sculptures. Many participants made use of the wood shop and used a variety of tools for the first time. Jess helped one pair build a door-like structure for their installation, and another pair learned how to use the drill press to create pieces for a small-scale rope bridge. One participant who had previously been too afraid to use the power tools, learned how to use a compressed-air staple gun. Although the participants stayed for an extra hour, the sculptures were not entirely complete and we made arrangements for completing them at a later date. During the last 45 minutes, we facilitated a wrap-up discussion that included asking the participants for feedback on their experience. Overall, participants expressed an enormous sense of accomplishment for having worked on a project of this magnitude, and they vocalized a newfound awareness of place and a heightened understanding of artmaking. 

 


Interviews with the Artists by Tegan Recker

In lieu of a formal exhibition of the work, some of which is still in progress, participant Tegan Recker has provided interviews with four program participants and their experiences. Tegan hopes to someday enter the field of curatorial studies.

 

Izzy 

Why did you decide to participate? 

“I was sent an email from an old teacher I am close to about the project and it sparked my interest because I enjoy art and was already familiar with some people who were also in the program.”

What did you expect and did anything surprise you?

“I didn’t have a lot of expectations because it was a pretty new experience for me, and it surprised me how much I became involved in the program and with the people in it.”

How were you impacted by being a part of the program? 

“The program had a pretty big impact on my life because it led me to join an art collective and showed me that trying new things can turn out super well.” 

Tell me about the process of making your piece. 

“It was a long and interesting process which taught me about a field I didn’t know much of-sculpture.”

Tell me about some of the details and choices you made with your piece. 

“The sculpture was a bust of another participant and the details chosen were some that I thought represented the person and what they stood for. For instance the chest on the bust had a feminist symbol painted on it.” 

Is there anything else you’d like to share about your experience? 

“It was a really great experience and I recommend to anyone who has an interest in something to explore it further in the way that this class did for me art.”

 

Cordelia

Why did you decide to participate in the program?

“I decided to participate because artmaking is something very important to me, but I love social artwork. I think social art is really cool because often it has to do with the community around, and maybe issues or things to celebrate. I thought having the opportunity to do this would be a great experience and would help me to see the world more clearly.”

What did you expect and did anything surprise you? 

“I didn’t have any expectations going in, honestly. But I was really surprised by how friendly everyone was and how much I ended up learning about the communities around me.”

How were you impacted by being a part of the program? 

“Honestly the message of unity within communities and observing social problems and issues has resonated in me since the program. I’ve been so open about new people and communities, and I no longer feel as worried or scared. I look at the greater picture, and I believe it’s because of the program.”

Tell me about the process of making your piece. 

“It was really difficult if we’re being honest. I don’t consider myself artistically inclined and I’ve never done any kind of sculpture work before. So I had to learn to see and visualize things spatially in clay, which was really difficult. I also had two different partners, each who ended up never coming back, if I recall correctly. So it was really difficult to make those adjustments to facial structures as I kept going. It was a lot of tedious changes and discomfort, but I think in the end it looked better and definitely could’ve looked a lot worse.”

Tell me about some of the details and choices you made with your piece.

“I used a contrast between soft and hard materials– e.g. tulle and branches. I wanted to create the effect of a dream-like peace in nature with was contrasted by a sort of dystopian scene with burlap, metal, and wiring. from each side, there were tree like structures making an arch, which was supposed to represent unity. I did the idea of utopia and dystopia because we had led very different lives. I incorporated ceramic butterflies, some whole and some broken up to represent some of the hardship we had both gone through, while the whole butterflies were meant to symbolize any accomplishments. “

Is there anything else you’d like to share about your experience?

“I just want to say that if anyone ever has the chance to do something like this, they definitely should because it is definitely worth it. “

 

Sydney

Why did you decide to participate?

“Mostly because my mum made me. But also I am really into sculpting and I knew it would be a fantastic opportunity to work with better supplies and actual teacher.”

What did you expect and did anything surprise you? 

“I thought it would be a lot smaller scale… I guess I assumed it would be like any other basic art class. But it was super interesting and I had access to so much!”

How were you impacted by being a part of the program? 

“It honestly helped me meet so many amazing people!! I got to branch out and get to know people I wouldn’t have in the first place and I’m so happy I’m still connected with them now. Honestly it was such a stressful process but I’ve never been more proud of an outcome in my life. I was doing so many new things like molding. And using machinery. And honestly creating art at such a large scale was new as well.”

Tell me about some of the choices and details you made for your sculpture. 

“So I chose to make my partners face older than hers to reflect both maturity and the antique style that I was going for. And then when adding other mediums to the project we chose to build a literal bridge between our two projects. As a way to most literally show a connection between us. One that we could cross. I also chose to decorate the desk my bust was mounted on with antiques and the classic sunflower painting by Van Gogh.”

Is there anything else you’d like to share about your experience?

“Not really – it was such a fantastic adventure and it really broadened my abilities!”

 

Ellie

Why did you decide to participate?

“To pursue my interest in art.”

Did you have any expectations and did anything surprise you?

“I really didn’t know what to expect, I had never done anything like that before. I was surprised that it permanently affected the way I do art. I never used to take my time with projects, I’d typically try to rush through them because I’m impatient. But this project forced me to take my time and put care into every step and the outcome was much more rewarding.”

Did the program have any impact on you and if so how?

“It exposed me to what art in a college is like, allowed me to try a new medium I’ve never used, pushed me outside of my comfort zone, and gave me a lot of experience working with people and broadening my creative abilities.”

Tell me about the process of making your piece.

“The process I went through was much longer than I have had with any other project. Each day we spent hours on a specific step. I had to improvise a lot along the way. Something would break or wouldn’t work out the way I wanted it to so I adapted and that just made the piece even better.”

Tell me about some of the choices and details you made when you made your piece. 

“I love art that shows a story so I carved a scene that I saw in Bethel into the chest of my sculpture bust to relate to how the focus of my sculpture was Bethel.”

Is there anything else you’d like to share about your experience?

“I think that everyone who has a passion for art should have an experience like this. Exposure to new experiences really helps you develop as an artist and a person.”

 


Conclusion

What emerged from the experiment was far more nuanced than the initial proposal in that the participants came from varied backgrounds and did not, in actuality, understand Newport and Bethel as a binary. Rather, they understood one another’s experiences as unique and complex, and although many of the Newport participants were unable to complete the project, our goals were still largely achieved. Participants from both sites benefited from visits to the Bethel Historical Society and Museum and the Newport History Museum, and through a series of drawing and performance exercises, began to think deeply and critically about their relationship to history and place. Thanks to Steven Finke and the NKU Spatial Arts Department as well as the assistance of Jessica Holtman and Elizabeth Rachford, participants were then able to translate their ideas into form in a studio context while experiencing what a college art program can offer. We are immensely grateful to the Scripps Howard Center for Civic Engagement for their generous support of this project, and to all those involved in making this program a reality. Finally, thank you, Tegan Recker, for the wonderful interviews and thanks to all the participants for making such incredible work with us!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s