Seward artist brings studio to the Kenai classroom
Up close, the hexagons Kenzie Shepherd pasted onto white paper together look like a disparate collage of multicolored shapes.
But take a step back and the picture crystalizes.
“I am making a kind of sunset that fades into purple,” Shepherd said, delicately plucking another small pink hexagon from the box of shapes at her table and gluing it down to her paper.
Shepherd is a fourth grader at Mountain View Elementary school in Kenai. This Wednesday morning was her class’s turn to work with Seward artist J Leslie while he’s in town for a week-long artist residency at the school.
Hexagons are kind of Leslie’s thing. His trademark geometric mountain and ocean landscapes are stamped all over Seward, and beyond, collaged from six-sided tiles in bright hues of blue and purple, yellow and pink.
As he explained to the fourth graders, those hexagons fit together like the pieces of a puzzle.
“They make this super special kind of pattern called a tessellation,” he told the class Wednesday. “A tessellation is a kind of pattern where all of the shapes fit together perfectly.”
The classroom is a familiar space for Leslie. Before he was a full-time artist, Leslie was an elementary school teacher, in Kenai and Seward.
Leslie said art classes were important to him when he was a student, as his artistic confidence grew.
“I grew up in rural New Hampshire,” he said. “And we did not have an art teacher in our school building, either. But a couple times had what I’m doing, now — an artist-in-residence come to school. And I still very vividly remember the art that I made with that.”
Mountain View doesn’t have one dedicated art teacher. Principal Karl Kircher said several teachers at the school have formal training in art education, and that he encourages them to incorporate art into their classes as much as possible.
“Art has to be part and parcel to what you do as an elementary school teacher,” he said.
And he said the residency program is another way to bring art to the classroom.
“It's up to me, as a building leader, if we don’t have the funding to search out those other sources,” he said. This residency in particular was funded by grants from the Hilcorp Alaska Community Foundation and the Alaska State Council for the Arts, plus some of the school’s own funding. Previously, the school hosted the performing arts group The Young Americans.
Leslie will work this week with all 400-or-so students in the K–5 school in sessions spread throughout the week. He said it’s a nice reprieve from the solitude of his work, too.
“Being an artist is inherently a pretty isolated existence,” he said. “And so from a selfish perspective, I get a lot out of teaching. Because it’s actually getting out in the world, and interacting with kids and other people.”
In a discussion at the end of the class, one of the fourth graders pointed out the abstract nature of the kids’ creations. Leslie said that’s partly the point — he encourages kids to make mistakes and break out of the idea that their work needs to look a certain way.
“You know, it’s really nice to have an end product that’s a pretty picture,” he said. “But to me, that’s kind of just like a bonus. It’s mostly about the process of it. And I think most kids, while they’re making art, are really good at just getting absorbed in that process."
That’s true for fourth-grader Alexander Shockley, who let himself get really caught up in the artistic process.
Some of the other fourth graders at his table pasted their shapes into flowers and sunsets. Shockley glue sticked a dozen yellow, orange and purple hexagons onto a white sheet of paper in the shape of a pyramid.
“I like that I can just be myself and express myself – kind of do what I want,” he said, shrugging. “Just create art.”
Shockley and the other fourth graders will be back in Leslie’s classroom Friday, when they’ll get to try their hand at drawing their own geometric pieces. practice drawing their own geometric drawings.