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Students Decide Their 2-Month Project Needs a Slightly Larger Canvas

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Belinda Vu decided not to tell her father what she has been working on the past two months in art class at Kenmore Middle School. Instead, she hopes that as he drives along Route 50 in Arlington County on the way to her grandmother's house on Thanksgiving, his eyes will turn to the green and yellow bands draped from the roof of the school to the ground.

"I want it to be a surprise," Belinda said yesterday, adding that she hopes he is "amazed."

In the spirit of artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude -- known for creating large-scale environmental installation art -- Belinda, 12, and other students spent the day wrapping the outside of the school in 150-foot-long colored plastic strips. Visible to thousands who drive along Route 50 past Carlin Springs Road, it will remain up at least two weeks.

"Now when they drive by, they will see more than just a window," Rodrigo Balderrama, 13, said. "Art doesn't always have to be drawn on a piece of paper. It could be strange, weird."

Shauna Dyer, who has worked with art teacher Jeff Wilson to oversee the work, described the project as a "great opportunity for kids to see how art can grow and extend outside the classroom and really understand the process that Jeanne-Claude and Christo go through. It connects to whatever they do in life, whether they become an artist or an engineer."

As the students rolled out the plastic on the classroom floor, cutting and taping it before securing it to evenly spaced cinder blocks on the roof, many spoke about what it all meant. How chaos compares with order. How art is about more than paint on a canvas.

"It is art because it billows in the wind and makes this sort of sound that is really beautiful," Priscilla Loera, 12, said of the material. "If you touch it, it's kind of like water. It kind of flows."

She and others agreed that the piece is about order, not chaos.

"Order, it has balance," Priscilla said. "Chaos is disorderly. But it's kind of beautiful, too. If you think of tie-dye, if you splash random colors, it's kind of beautiful."

"The building always had order," said Katie Atkins, 12. "We just needed a way to enhance that order."

Wilson said the project grew out of student creativity, with cooperation as a key element. He had them watch a documentary on Christo and Jeanne-Claude's "Running Fence," an installation north of San Francisco that stretched 24 1/2 miles and crossed 14 roads.

"They realized busloads of people were brought in to make this happen," Wilson said. "It wasn't just one person."

An artist himself, Wilson said he walked into the Phillips Collection at age 20 and asked whether they might want to display his art. They didn't. But after teaching for 17 years, he said, he is proud that the internationally recognized museum in Dupont Circle will display students' work Jan. 24. The museum will also highlight a similar project at Bruce-Monroe Elementary School at Park View in the District. There, fourth- and fifth-graders will install a canvas fence in an empty field next to the school.

"This is amazing," Christopher Celauro of the Phillips Collection said while watching the class. "It's great to see all the kids involved." The museum, he added, believes it is important to display student art among the greats, because "everyone started somewhere."

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