In 2002 I was approached to do an artist in residence gig on the edge of the Navajo Nation in the town of Bluff, Utah. Having taught in the Ozarks where some of my students did not have indoor plumbing or electricity put me in a good mind space for this gig. Having taught art, music, drama, and dance in one of the poorest districts in the country also put me in a good creative head space. I was excited to help the children create a permanent sculpture. However I was rather daunted when I was asked to propose a plan for the sculpture, in particular a tortoise. I responded that I thought this was a project for the children and with the opinion that they themselves should design and execute the project. Much discussion ensued and I finally promised to take full responsibility for removing the sculture should the town people not be happy with it.
The idea was to create a sculpture that the children could interact with. I was concerned with snakes and scorpions so was insistent that the sculpture grow out of the ground with no place for creatures to hide under neath. The children, I’ve heard, do play on and about them.
We ended up creating 4 sculptures over a two year period. The sculptures were designed and created by students age 6 through 12. They designed and created the sand sculture base. I cut and molded the wire because that was tricky and no matter how careful I was I cut myself. On the first sulpture, I mixed all the concrete in a wheel barrel while the students (with rubber gloves) poured and molded. I never touched the sculpture–it was their’s. They did make an effort to make sure that all the feet of the tortoise were the same. On Subsequent projects, the students mixed their own concrete in the wheel barrels and I encouraged them to show their individuality on the various parts like legs (It was, after all, a group project.) The projects seemed to get larger and larger with the last needing 24 bags of motor mix. These were all mixed beneath July sun in the Navajo Desert. I camped out by the scultures and sprayed them with water every hour until they were dry with the hope that they would not crack. The only crack that has appeared over the years was when a tree fell on the toad’s tongue.
The town leaders where afraid that vadals would destroy the sculptures but quite the contrary. It has been reported to me that whenever trash appears left by weekend partyers, it always seems to get picked up.
The second year we did the sculptures, some people came in to watch and were so amazed that the children were in actuality doing it all themselves (I forbid them to help) that they funded 5 more years of future summer art programs.
The students elected to paint the sculptures. I was not there for that part of the project. The local leaders were not concerned with the permanence of the paint because they thought it would be fun to go back and paint them every couple of years. These photos were taken after the paint had began to worn.
A little turtle was created by me to show the kids how strong a concrete sculpture would be. We hit it with hammers and threw it around. We finally were able to destroy it. One of the students made another little turtle. It seems to move around the yard on it’s own now. If you visit, be sure to move it. The fly above was also created by one of the students. It was created so that the toad would have a reason for sticking his tongue out.
One of the students had me pose for a photograph with him in front of the tortoise. He told his mother that he could make another sculpture-start to finish. He had participated in every step. He was empowered. It was a beautiful thing.
Another memorable student was a little 6 year old girl who took charge of the lizard. She insisted they start over because the first attempt was too still and straight. She wanted the lizard to be moving with the head this way and the tail that way. There was a lot of sculpting and rescuplting of the base sand castle to get it the way she thought it should be. Every one just kept giving it their best–beneath that hot July sun. It was fun to watch.
My philosophy as an art teacher is to inspire, give them the tools, show them how it’s done, and get out of the way. I don’t want any clones of me. I try to empower each as an individual and give them their own voice.