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Middle school students learn lessons through unusual project

Jan Hearne • Apr 1, 2013 at 11:58 AM

They stand like ghostly, crumpled sentries at the door to Liberty Bell Middle School. They are leaking light; their days are numbered.

Inside the school there are more of their kind — sitting, standing, slouching, poring over books, dancing, trying to look casual.

They are sculptures made from life casts and heavy duty packing tape. It is a project the students worked on for three weeks, meeting every other day for an hour. It’s only a matter of time before the sculptures go the way of all flesh — er, tape. In other words, they’re bound for the trash can.

This is the second year Walsh has tried this project with her students. Asked where she got the idea, she said, “Teachers always steal ideas. I taught English before (I taught art) and I was looking for projects on the Internet.”

She thought it “looked like fun,” and realized there were other lessons to be learned along the way.

About 280 students ages 12 to 14 took part. They were divided into design teams and told to come up with a concept.

“Part of the idea was to get the sculpture to fit within the environment of the school,” Walsh said. “How is going to enhance the environment?”

Each of the ideas was presented to a panel of judges; the winning team became the designers. “Once the proposal was approved, the students had to direct each other,” Walsh said. “They had to communicate to the models, ‘this is the pose you take.’ ”

At first all of the students wanted to be models. Then they realized the work involved. Each body part was “cast” using plastic wrap, then it was wrapped in heavy duty packing tape. Middle-school students had to stand still for tens of minutes before they were scissored free. “After the first day they weren’t as happy with their decision (to model),” Walsh said. “They could get through two arms in a class period. It took maybe 30 to 40 minutes for two arms.”

Heads were trickier. The models’ faces were wrapped with strips of plastic wrap, then packing tape. They wore stocking caps to protect their hair, and breathed by lifting the wrap away from their noses. “It took about 10 minutes for the head. Some of the students got claustrophobic,” Walsh said. “It told them to breathe, go to your happy place, pretend you’re meditating right now. It worked for most students.”

She saved the heads for last, waiting until the students got some experience wrapping body parts. After the head was cast, a seam was cut up the back with scissors and the cast pulled free.

Once the plastic tape body parts were created, the assembly began. “I talked to them about body proportions,” Walsh said. “Leave a part off when you put it together and it’s going to be out of proportion.”

It took two to three hours per sculpture to put each one together.

Design concepts included a group of sculptures doing steps from the macarena. Others echoed the silhouettes painted by mural artist Laura Stoyakevytch during the school’s most recent renovation. One group chose to illustrate the theme of recycling. On sunny days, the figures positioned at the front entrance look as if they are illuminated from within. “You want the sculptures to be see-through,” Walsh said.

One group included a student who was born with a birth defect. Corrective surgery necessitated the amputation of one foot. The student brought in her prosthetic legs from when she was small to the present and casts were made of them. They were interspersed with stepping stones to show the obstacles she’s overcome. The display is called “Don’t stop believing.”

Asked how the rest of the students viewed the art project, Wals said, “They love them. They ask, ‘How did you do that?’ That’s the reaction you want them to have to art.”

The tape sculptures were meant to be temporary, but the lessons learned from the project are long term: communication, team work, creating concepts, meeting deadlines, and, finally, letting go.

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