When artist Kevin Reese works with students, he brings his own supplies: paint, brushes, an electric drill, saws and cement. His art is meant to last. But for Claremont Immersion Elementary School in Arlington, one of Reese’s works wasn’t enough.
“I’ve done 108 installations in 24 states and one in Taipei, Taiwan,” Reese said. “Three schools have two. And then there’s Claremont. It’s like the Kevin Reese memorial garden.”
Reese, 54, has spent a week at Claremont every June since 2008. He and graduating fifth-graders create a sculpture or mobile that puts the students’ inspiration on display long after they leave.
“It’s their gift to the school and our gift to them,” says Nancy Libson, who coordinates special projects for Claremont.
Each piece has a theme, and this year’s is the Spanish-speaking world. Mia Giacomo, 11, said it was fitting for a school where half the classes are taught in Spanish.
“I think it’s a good idea for a theme because it’s incorporated so much in our school,” Mia said. “And no one had done that before.”
Creating art that reflects each school is part of what has made Reese’s School Sculptures project a success. At Fairfax’s Lanier Middle School, a National Wildlife Federation “green school,” the theme was the environment. At Emmorton Elementary in Bel Air, Maryland, it was doing for others, which reflects the school motto of being responsible.
Students meet with Reese to talk about the theme and sketch their ideas. He takes the drawings back to his Washington studio, using them for inspiration to make a model. Reese then returns to the school for the construction. And out come the power tools.
At Claremont this month, he demonstrated how to drill a hole and then picked a few students to give it a try. Reese also explained why there can be no goofing off around the tools.
“I show them a chop saw and say, ‘This tool doesn’t care. It will cut my finger off before I know I’ve cut my finger off,’ ” he said. “And then you get these wide-eyed looks.”
By the second day, students were begging to have a turn with the ratchet wrench. They started figuring out what step came next.
“Do you need someone to sand that?” Nivram Centano-Solano, 12, asked after Reese cut a section of wood. “Yeah, that would be great,” Reese replied.
Other than the sawing, the project is really about working together. So the kids dug holes. They poured cement. They painted.
What took shape was a wooden structure, about 16 feet tall, with bright colors, a swinging beam at the top and the flags of El Salvador, Bolivia, Spain and the United States to reflect the heritage of the school’s students and a partnership with the Embassy of Spain.
Kids who help Reese put together a sculpture or a mobile aren’t learning only about art; they also explore physics, geometry and chemistry.
The glue he uses isn’t just glue; it’s epoxy. “It’s two separate chemicals,” Reese explained, as he asked Claremont’s Calvin Hendren, 11, to mix the two ingredients. “And the cool thing about epoxy is, once I mix it I’ve got about 10 minutes before it’s rock-hard.”
In April at Emmorton, the topic was symmetry, or balance. Reese was working with about 300 second- and third-graders on a 24-foot-wide mobile for the school’s library.
“They could really understand what he was talking about,” said Andrea Sauer, an Emmorton parent who coordinated the project. “They had that hands-on application.”
Kids at Lanier built a mobile with Reese in March. They learned about math, physics and the creative process, according to the principal, Scott Poole. Reese, who is also an actor, performed his one-man play, “A Perfect Balance,” the story of a young man who experiments with different kinds of art before discovering a love of mobiles.
“Everybody loved it,” Poole said. “It gave students a sense of how important creativity is in your life.”
At the end of his week at Claremont, Reese was running short on time to have the sculpture ready for its dedication. The fifth-graders were on a field trip, and he needed to carry the piece across the parking lot and hoist it on top of the school sign.
“I hired a fourth-grade class for 58 minutes,” Reese said with a laugh. “They were great.”
Reese was pleased with the finished product, especially after seeing the flags fluttering in the wind. “It has that real sense of lightness.”
But his fellow artists hadn’t seen it. When buses carrying the fifth-graders pulled into the parking lot, students got their first glimpse of the painted sculpture in place. Cheers erupted.
“The whole bus was like “Yeah!” said Robert Starkey, 11. “Fifth grade rocks.”
Reese will stage a free performance of “A Perfect Balance” on Friday at 11 a.m. at the National Gallery of Art’s East Building Concourse.