Artists in Schools resident inspires Little Fireweed Academy students to create

You don’t have to be a great artist to use canvas for your creations. Turns out, you don’t even really have to know the names of the tools you’re using. That’s if, like the tiny tots at Little Fireweed Academy, you’ve got an experienced Homer artist at your side.

Ann Margret Wimmerstedt just finished her residency at the charter school in the Artists in Schools program, funded by the Alaska State Council on the Arts, part of the Alaska Department of Education, and coordinated in this region by the Bunnell Street Arts Center.

Over the course of a week, Wimmerstedt helped the students create a mural of painted animals cut out from canvas using myriad painting techniques.

“It was all about process,” she said. “Techniques in painting, new experiments with different tools. We talked a lot about color, a lot about shape.”

Under Wimmerstedt’s guidance, the students also created smaller, personal versions of their mural animals — sand hill cranes, salmon, muskox, caribou — about which their teachers helped them write poems. Fireweed Principal Todd Hindman said the school always tries to incorporate core classes and concepts into art-intensive work.

The little artists had a chance to explain to their parents just how they accomplished this cooperative project during a showcase held Friday at the school on East End Road in Homer.

In three separate groups, parents and children migrated from the school’s yurt outside, where Wimmerstedt presented their final mural project and talked about the process, to an indoor hands-on art session utilizing the students’ new skills, and finally to a poetry reading in which the work was based off the animals the students painted in the mural.

On the first day of Wimmerstedt’s residency, the students learned painting techniques from her and practiced them on paper. On the second day, they did more technique work and created and cut out their personal animal that would be the inspiration for their poems. On the third day, Wimmerstedt turned them loose on canvas.

“They worked collaboratively,” Wimmerstedt said. “Our mantra was, ‘They’re not my animals, they’re not your animals, they’re our animals.’ And that way they could work on a piece together without taking ownership.”

The theme of the lesson was “journey,” Wimmerstedt said. Thus, she and the teachers talked a lot about migration with the children, which influenced their art.

When it came to the actual mural project, Wimmerstedt said, it was as much an experiment in patience for the students as it was in painting.

“It was a risk to do this with such young children, because we weren’t sure how it was going to turn out, and they kind of want to know,” she said. “But I said, no, we’re going to be surprised, and it (was) just absolutely better than I could have imagined.”

“Every single child said, ‘I love this so much, I could keep doing this all day,’” she continued.

Wimmerstedt is one of several artists in Homer, established and blooming, who take the time to pass their expertise and creativity on to young people through the Artists in Schools program. The residencies range from paint to photography to dance.

“We have so many artists living in this town, all kinds of different (ones),” Wimmerstedt said. “There are dancers, there are ceramicists, there are painters. And when you have this resource of all these people with all this knowledge, we thought this is a perfect opportunity to link the artist with the school so the kids get that enrichment from so much wisdom.”

“It’s really rewarding for the artist, because you learn things from them as you’re teaching them the technique,” she added. “… It’s a mutual thing.”

It’s hard to find a school where the importance of art in education is made more obvious than at Fireweed, where art literally appears to jump off the walls as soon as one walks through the doors.

“I’m a big advocate for arts in the classroom, and luckily at Fireweed we do a lot of art,” Hindman said. “The thing over the years that I’ve liked most about Artists in Schools is that it brings out talents that we don’t see as reading teachers or math teachers. It’s hidden talents usually, but that’s not so much the case at Fireweed because we do a lot of art in both buildings.”

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