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Heroic measures.

Heroic sculpture takes heroic measures. Time, materials, outdoor workplaces and commitment are the background necessary to create huge pieces of three-dimensional art. Ordinarily these criteria may not reflect a classroom experience unless a school has someone in the foreground such as well-known sculptor, Harry Messersmith.

Fifteen years ago in Volusia County, the Florida Arts Council and the School Board initiated an Artist-in-Education program. The idea was to let students observe how a professional artist goes about his business. Students also found that art is not only a creative, colorful expression, but is a viable profession from which one can make a living.

Harry Messersmith is a professional sculptor and current Director of the DeLand Museum of Art in Florida. When he became the Artist-in-Education for the school program he created a complete hands-on experience for students. He also took the opportunity to promote his philosophy. Messersmith sees no dividing line between artistic expression and the realities of life. He says creative thinking and problem solving involve many aspects of living, whether it's the style and color of clothing to wear, which car or house to purchase, the engineering of a street or how to perceive the universe.

Messersmith impressed upon the students that art is part of a thought process. By involving them in all phases of the building of sculpture projects, he proves that art does not happen without good design, and creativity does not occur by happenstance. Art is brought to fruition by involvement and concentration. By the time the students finished working with Messersmith, they grasped the concepts of model building, the skills of planning and executing a workable design to be permanently mounted, and the frustrations and pleasures of hard work. Most gratifying was that the students felt that what they had created was theirs. A unique aspect of the project was that each piece of sculpture was worked on by groups of students in rotation, thus promoting "communal art."

Chilling Out Terrier

The first project was done at DeLand Middle School by one-hundred-fifty eighth and ninth graders. Messersmith, in collaboration with art teacher Jan Herr, realized the students had to be interested in the concept in order to sustain their enthusiasm. When they suggested immortalizing their school mascot, "Terrier," a concrete commemoration began to unfold. Influenced by humor, the lingo of the day and the familiar environment of sand and surf, Chilling Out Terrier was in the works. Absorbing the sun's rays in a beach chair, a confident dog with his arms folded in back of his head and sunglasses in hand, seemed a fitting result for Floridian students of sculpture.

Initially, the students worked on three clay models for the dog's miniature representation. Messersmith picked what he considered to be the best model. He then welded an armature of steel pipe. (Messersmith explained to the students that the armature is the skeleton or inner support structure for the finished sculpture.) Since welding is hazardous, Messersmith alone used an acetylene torch and an arc welder to cut and weld the pipe together. After that, cutting began on 4' x 8' (122 cm x 244 cm) pieces of polyurethane foam which the students glued around the dog's skeletal armature. Then they shaved the foam into the desired dog shape with rasps and saws.

Carving the dog was only the beginning; the students still had a long way to go. The next step was to wrap the dog with two miles of electrical fencing wire. This created a "tooth" to which the next material, cement, could easily adhere. The students then mixed together white Portland cement, builder's sand and steel wool with as little water as possible to produce a mixture with the consistency of mud. (Too much water weakens the strength of cement.) The students donned gloves and rubbed the mixture onto the wire to create a 2" (5 cm) thick cement shell. The cement shell then had to be cured so it wouldn't crack and become brittle. Curing it involved hydration time. The students wrapped the shell in plastic and hosed it down frequently, under the plastic, for a period of two months.

As the cement embryo waited in its plastic womb to be born, the Industrial Arts class was busy building a 10' (305 cm) wooden beach chair so that Terrier could eventually "chill out" in the Florida sun. After curing the cement, the students sealed it with a concrete scaler and added a colorful personality to Terrier with exterior paint. To this day, he basks on the school grounds, a cool dude in his beach chair.

The Tower

With a group of sixth grade students at George Marks Elementary School, Messersmith and art teacher Ray Kennedy explored ideas and decided to construct a tower. Armed with glue guns and shish kebab skewers, the students each built a competitive model. Messersmith and Kennedy chose a structure which was feasible to build and which could be displayed outdoors in defiance of the Florida elements. The winner was an Erector set type of triangular structure. Messersmith did not want to use a form in which welding would be necessary as few students would be able to participate. All the carpenter's tools used in building a house soon became part of the project as students measured, sawed and drilled. Three 8' 1244 cm) tiers were the components for the finished 24' (732 cm) tower. The materials were 2" x 4" x 8' (6 cm x 10 cm x 244 cm) lengths of pressure treated pine held together by galvanized bolts. At the base of the structure, the students bolted wood to flanges which were secured in a concrete foundation. For a final touch, painted, spinning veins of colored steel were anchored into the triangular spaces of the tower. Orange, teal blue and lime green added their colorful, kinetic pantomime within the static structure.

At first, the challenge of building such a tall, formidable structure was exciting to the students and many were willing to try it. However, from the model building to the finished product, not all of the students who had originally entered into the project sustained the patience to continue. In the end, the project interested the boys more than the girls. But to the tenacious young artist, climbing "The Tower" to assemble it became an exciting week-by-week reward.

Messersmith likened the students' communal execution of their design to that of the builders of the pyramids where each handler of the stones added to the apex. Messersmith had also added a new dimension to the students' thinking. Previously, many of them thought that art was easy and fun. They soon discovered that art was also as serious a labor as any other endeavor.

The Space Shuttle Enterprise

At Enterprise Elementary, sparked by the name of their school and that of the space shuttle, fifth-grade students created a bas-relief, "The Space Shuttle Enterprise." The school's art teacher, Holly Branch, selected the students with whom Messersmith worked. The students studied photo graphs and drawings of the space shuttle, then broke up into groups and worked on component parts which would be attached later to complete the bas-relief. Clay pieces (20"; 40 cm wide) of the moon, a satellite and a spaceman began to take shape. Students used different materials for the armatures which they later removed. A paper tube dictated the size of the space shuttle, and stainless steel dowels covered with newspaper underneath the clay, guided the shapes of the moon and earth. The students bisque-fired their final designs at 1860 degrees.

The next step was to create the background. The most challenging aesthetic aspect of this project was finding a creative manner in which to depict space. How does one portray nothingness? Think for a moment. What process and what technique would come to mind to create the vastness of the eternal void? The students thought more than briefly about the matter and their process of thought began to parallel evolution itself. Using the closest experience to space on the earth, the students looked into ponds and lakes where sinewy, organic outlines jarred them into interpretations. The students justified space as a texture and recreated it as such. With enthusiasm, they rolled out clay in a 6' x +' (183 cm x 122 cm) slab and prepared a rectangular, celestial pancake. The freedom of art had overshadowed the exactness of science. Using spontaneity and their sculpting tools, the students scooped, drew and imprinted textures in the clay to break up the space with free form. A textured, cobalt-blue, primordial soup became the representation of the void and the background for the finished bas-relief.

The next step was to cut the background into squares for firing and then assemble it like a giant, blue jigsaw puzzle. Some of the pieces had shrinkage cracks and the students filled these in with cobalt-blue tinted epoxy. By the time the students attached the component parts to complete the bas-relief, over fifty separate parts comprised "The Space Shuttle Enterprise."

The above descriptions are only a selection of the many pieces that Harry Messersmith inspired students to create at different schools. Except for a few commissioned pieces, Volusia County had little outdoor sculpture of which to boast. Messersmith and his students changed all that. Massive, three-dimensional art now stands on school grounds as a tribute to many students and to one Artist-in-Education who took heroic measures.

Margaret Linger Pearson writes about art and education events in the DeLand, Florida area.
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Title Annotation:Harry Messersmith, Director of the Deland Museum of Art, inspires children through sculpture projects in Florida
Author:Pearson, Margaret Linger
Publication:School Arts
Date:Apr 1, 1991
Previous Article:Self-identification installation sculpture.
Next Article:Nail figure.

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