Art from the Heart: PECES Teachers Embrace Annual Exhibit

During the month of March, the Longwood Center for Visual Arts is transformed with the collected art work of thousands of area kids. The Start with Art Learn for Life Area Youth Art Exhibit has been a fixture at the center for over 15 years. Featuring the works of children from 44 public, private and homeschools in the 12 surrounding counties and the collaborative efforts of over 50 teachers, the exhibit is a cache of the creativity of students from pre-K through high school. But for Joy Utzinger and Carol “Cricket” Edmonson – it’s so much more.

Art teachers at Prince Edward Elementary School (PECES), Cricket and Joy teach almost 1000 children a week between them. Joy has been with PECES for 17 years and Cricket for 24. For them, the annual exhibit has become the ultimate exercise in creativity and fulfilling the heart of their role as art teachers: to display and celebrate art.

“We are fortunate to live and work in a community where art is valued and to work in a place where art is appreciated,” says Joy.

During the exhibit, the challenge lies in finding a way to represent each student in a limited space. Because of the high participation, each school is allotted a specific area. The exact size varies from year to year. No matter the available space, each year Cricket and Joy tackle the task of displaying each child’s contribution, versus picking only a handful to highlight. Over the years, the solutions have been creative and beautiful. For Van Gogh’s sunflower theme, each child did a sunflower. One Year of The Dragon theme had each child decorate a paper plate to be a part of a massive paper mâché dragon hung from the ceiling.

Whether it’s flowers or dragon scales, Joy and Cricket are quick to admit that the process of figuring out what to do and how to display it is always a team effort.

“At home, I’m a painter. Cricket is a potter. I tend to approach things from a more two-dimensional direction and Cricket thinks more three dimensionally. This has proved to be a great combination. Cricket thinks outside the box. She works with parameters she is given to think how we can represent everyone,” Joy explains.

From designing ancient Greek vases that encircle columns to laboring over life-sized sarcophagi, the hive mind of Cricket and Joy has proved to be an amazing asset to their students and the community. And nowhere is this hive mind more apparent than in the Main Street Gallery, the massive front windows of the LCVA gallery that open onto Main Street.

Although PECES isn’t always given the opportunity to use the window space during the exhibition, they frequently are. Every year is a new, unique adventure of its own. Joy and Cricket explain that the window generally takes a full two months of preparation, with efforts starting as soon as after Christmas.

This year’s window featured the abstract works of local artist Monty Montgomery, a Longwood graduate whose tryptic-style murals can be seen around town and down by the Farmer’s Market. With the Main Street Gallery filled with the children’s own tryptic-style murals, city skylines and self portraits, Joy and Cricket relished the opportunity to engage their students with an actual living artist. Accustomed to scores of famous, but long gone, painters and sculptors, Cricket says having the children interact with Monty and his work was a powerful moment of connection.

“They kept asking me, ‘Is he dead?!’” Cricket recalls laughingly.

The idea of art as a living, active thing being created by living people is just one of the many gifts that art education, and by extension, the exhibit itself offers to the community.

“It is our job to make art important and valuable. We teach art to our students but also educate the people we work with about the importance and value of making art and looking at art. Our responsibility as art teachers is to make art valuable and to show its value,” says Joy.

As central as educating about value and appreciation for art is to Cricket and Joy, the students themselves are the active, brilliant heart of what the exhibit is all about.

“They get excited about it,” says Joy. “They will ask me ‘What are we doing this year?’ Many times they will have lots of really excellent ideas of their own for displaying and themes.”

Cricket says that the exhibit makes such an impression that the kids talk about it throughout the year.

“They’ll complete a work and hand it to me and say “Take this to the museum! Make sure it goes to the museum,” Cricket says.

This sense of excitement and accomplishment is further intensified as students are given a chance to be taken via bus to see their works on display at the gallery. The moment of seeing their creations in a professional setting often makes an indelible mark on the students.

“The field trips to see the exhibit are short but we hope they inspire the kids, or encourages them to have their parents bring them back, or return with friends,” Joy says.

At the end of the month, long after the last piece of brightly colored paper is gone, there is an essential mission that keeps Joy and Cricket pushing forward. In their own classrooms, surrounded by walls lined with construction paper, faces of artists and pieces of past projects, fluorescent lights shining down, you can see the spark in their eyes. It is a mission, as Joy expressed it, to make art matter, because it already does.

It’s woven throughout history, social studies, math and even science. Cricket especially has a gift for weaving together science and art projects. She and Joy live for that illuminating moment when their students realize that art is more than just a 40-minute class once a week. Art is a concept that surrounds them every day.

“It’s part of our responsibility as art teachers to display art. It’s a visual thing. It needs to be seen. But it is a pleasure when we are able to link it to other educational experiences,” Joy says.

Those linking moments, like a carefully drawn row of sunflowers, are the glue that holds the experience together and make the annual exhibition more than just a month-long showcase. It makes it a testament to one simple fact: Art isn’t just the start-it’s beginning, middle and end. The lessons it teaches are big enough and bright enough to span lifetimes.


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