A Portrait of the Artists As Fourth-Graders

Ingrid Arze, 9, of Arlington shows off her work to her aunt Mercedes Gomez, holding son Dieri Vallejos.
Ingrid Arze, 9, of Arlington shows off her work to her aunt Mercedes Gomez, holding son Dieri Vallejos. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)

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By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 22, 2006

On a warm spring evening last week, the marble-lined, gilded halls of the National Museum of Women in the Arts opened an exhibition honoring 40 artists.

They were not famous, and you aren't likely to see their work going for exorbitant prices at art auctions. But the 17 fourth-graders from Claremont Immersion Elementary in Arlington and 23 fourth-graders from Oyster Bilingual Elementary in the District were thrilled to see their work showcased in the museum, where for the next five months it will reside in a small gallery of its own. The exhibit even has its own security guard.

The exhibition, "Bridging Communities," is the culmination of nine months during which the students worked with art and reading teachers and met with artists and authors to learn to make books by hand. They used media such as cloth, plaster and string in addition to paint and paper.

Students from the schools, both of which have bilingual English-Spanish programs, formed partnerships to work together during the year, though each student's finished product was an individual work. The Claremont students' theme was "motivation"; the Oyster students' theme was "journeys."

Some of the results were unusual. "Screaming Girls on the Crystal City Soccer Team," by 10-year-old Peyton Johnson of Claremont, took the form of a painted soccer cleat with a long scroll of paper that described the exhilaration Peyton experienced upon scoring a goal for her team.

"They're sculptural," said Faylinda Kodis, the Claremont art teacher who oversaw the project. "The idea is, 'book as art.' "

Claremont student Murphy Wilt, 9, designed his book to look like a hopscotch game. And Ashley Lemus, 9, of Claremont made a book of large, colorful cakes studded with sequins, writing, "We always celebrate with a party when my brother comes home from the army in Iraq or Hawaii. My brother is 24 years old and he's really fun. He's always looking out for me, and he still acts like a little kid."

Over the school year, the students learned how to hand-dye paper and were encouraged to think about other artists' work as they refined ideas for their books.

"One of our students was so excited about it that his first draft was 56 pages long," said Carole Whelan, the art teacher overseeing the project at Oyster. "And I think they're thrilled that they have their work in a museum. Most of our students are fortunate to come to museums a lot, so they know what it means for a museum to devote space to young kids. And when they heard they were getting their own security guard, they were just -- 'Aaaahhh!' They were in heaven."

The museum has hosted similar projects for the past eight years, with seven schools from Arlington and the District participating. "The idea is bringing together students of different communities and sometimes of different age groups," said Mieke Fay, manager of youth programs for the museum. "They write letters back and forth, they have field trips to each other's schools, they send pen pal letters back and forth, they write bios of each other. . . . Exposing them to a different school in a different area fosters communication."

Whelan's fourth-grade classes have done book projects twice before, in partnership with other schools, including Yorktown High School.

"It was wonderful," she said of that endeavor. "The younger kids just adored the high school kids. But this [year] was more a partnership of equals."

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