Twenty-four Macon County eleventh grade students are part of a mentoring program with Auburn University students and graduate assistant Raven Conwell. The project is funded in part by the Appalachian Regional Commission, and the work these students do together revolves around workplace and college readiness.
On Friday, May 11, 2012, students at Notasulga School participated in the work of Mobile Studio with artist Dan Neil and AU landscape architecture professor Jocelyn Zanzot. Several of our Bridge Builders students participated throughout the day, especially Alexis Allen, who snapped hundreds of pictures .
The night before, at Pleasant Grove Church, we were introduced to the national Civic Data Challenge of the National Conference on Citizenship through a video-recorded invitation from Kristi Tate of NCOC. The purpose of the contest is to explore and make use of civic data statistics in creative and meaningful ways. Cristin Foster, program coordinator for the David Mathews Center for Civic Life, discussed the finding of the first Alabama Civic Health Index. One of the most important takeaways from that important report is that Alabamians rank high when it comes to doing favors for neighbors (4th in the USA), but we rank dead last for contacting or visiting a public official. So the challenge for our students is to explore all of these statistics and create something as a result.
Enter Mobile Studio. The method is simple yet profound. On Friday morning, students helped Dan and Jocelyn assemble an outdoor studio in the center of Notasulga’s school campus. Three sides of the box contains drawing tables with different art media and a long, blank sheet of paper. One side contains all the tools to make new paper from used paper. The big plastic container holds a mulch made from used paper and water. Students mix it with a drill and are then ready to make paper using a screen and deckle. The steps are few, but they are all important.
For drawing, students stand inside the studio looking outward, noticing what they see in the landscape before them. One side faces a walkway between two buildings. Another view is of a green courtyard between two more buildings. And another view faces the playground and woods. Jocelyn encourages students to draw what they see, as well as what they don’t see, what they can imagine. The point is to capture and record surroundings in an artful way, as well as to imagine what could be done with the space to enhance the overall environment. It was a busy day, since every student—kindergarten through 12th grade—participated, even if for only a few minutes. We knew Notasulga students were sharp, but we didn’t know that they would be so helpful to each other, eager to participate in the process, and patient while waiting. It was a busy day in the sun and partial shade, and Notasulga students made it all worth the effort.
The paper is drying now, under sunlight and fan, and the newly created paper will be used on Thursday to develop a poster expressing a message the students create in response to the civic health data. It’s time we as a society focus our attention on civic health, thinking through and making decisions related to actions that will make our communities strong, productive, and full of people doing the hard work of citizenship. Printed messages are all around us (billboards, logos, URLs, warnings, signage, etc.), but our landscapes need some artful reminders, admonishments, and thought-provoking words to convey, shape, or produce what all of seem to be after: communities of people with lives well-lived and full of meaning. Our students have the opportunity to express to the nation their responses to civic health data through this contest. It will be a message worth hearing.