When I moved to Richmond, I kept hearing about this art program called Art 180; an after school program targeted at inner-city youth. The aim of this program is to provide these kids with an outlet of expression and creativity, as well as having something positive and constructive to do in the evening.
How it works: Local artists submit a project proposal for a Fall or Spring session. Each session lasts 12 weeks and works with a local community center, club, or school. If your idea is selected, Program Coordinators match you with a site and an assistant, and we all meet once a week towards our project goal. At the end of the session we have a group exhibition or performance (depending on the project) and celebrate the creative endeavors of these very special kids. So I came up with a proposal, an idea I’ve been wanting to do for awhile.
Traditionally Spirit Houses have been used by Asian cultures to house the souls of their ancestors, facilitating prosperity and providing protection. In my research I found examples of this idea in several cultures and time periods. Below are some of these examples.
I like the idea of a little dwelling as a tribute; using design, color, and texture to convey a feeling of that person. We used this concept, but expanded on the idea of the individual spirit; how to visually represent the positive aspects of a person. My group, ages 9-10, were from the William Byrd Community House. Group members used their Spirit House’s to show the positive effects this person has had on their life. The first day of our session, we got to know each other, and I briefly introduced the idea. The second week I showed them a powerpoint presentation of my research on Spirit Houses and the mock up of the project I did at home. To my delight, my kids were excited and on board! They immediatly started discussing how they were going to design the interiors.
We had to pre-cut the plywood so each kid would have the same size pieces to put together. I found this video on youtube, that showed how to build a dog house from one sheet of 4′ X 8′ and we worked off of that (youtube doghouse). After all pieces of the design were cut, I carted them off to William Byrd to begin construction.
The first step of the process is to nail the pre-cut 1″ X 2″ pieces to the walls of the house so they can be attached. I had the kids practice nailing on some scrap wood, focusing on getting the nails in straight. This was less than successful. The group loved the hammering and the idea of building it themselves, but even working in partners, they struggled getting the nails in straight and the walls together. They needed a lot of adult help. After trying it a couple of ways, my assistant and I decided the best course of action was to use a drill and screws. We had to troubleshoot fast so as not to waste too much class time, we only had, after all, a limited amount of meeting times. By the time we had every house erected with walls, we had no time left to screw the floors on. The houses were less than perfect and quite flimsy, so again we consulted and decided to glue the floors on. I came in on an off day and put as much wood glue as I could squeeze out along the bottom half and the seams; it would have to do.
Now that the houses were finally built and staying together, it was time for paint! We discussed how colors could convey different feelings, and I provided a worksheet to help the kids brainstorm an how they wanted their houses to look. The worksheet asked them to select a very important person they wanted to represent. It also asked them to consider the exterior.. “what colors, images, symbols could you use to represent your Spirit Person?” Thinking about the interior.. “what colors, objects, and textures could you create to show your relationship with that Spirit Person?” We also talked about warm and cool colors and how that contrast could create more interest in their house. For instance, warm colors on the inside of a house would draw viewers to want to look inside. Colors were selected and painting ensued. Since we were inside the Community House in a side room, we tarp-ed the floors, gave the kids shoe covers, and prayed the paint stayed on the houses. Again, this step took longer than we had hoped, and a lot of the kids struggled with their painting level and what they wanted it to look like. I find this pretty typical with this age group. As kids reach upper elementary and middle school, they start to notice the accuracy of skilled art, yet don’t have the technique to do this themselves. In the interest of time, and my wanting of their projects to be what they are expecting, I painted a few outlines of cartoon characters, football helmets and the like, and instructed the kids on how to fill them in with paint. Once there was color on the inside and outside, and a few pictures to go with it, I asked the kids to write down a few words that described their Spirit Person and their relationship together. As another layer of expression, we painted some of these words on the interior and exterior.
Final step! I received different colored felt, foam sheets, and a ton of Model Magic from Art 180. We were also given several glue guns. Since sculpting is my area of expertise, I bought in a bunch of my clay tools and texture stamps, and gave the kids a little instructing on some things they could make for the inside of their house. This is where I felt their creativity really lift off. Up until this time, it was apparent that even though they were always excited and having fun, the group was less than confident about creating things on their own. Between the tricky construction and the struggle rendering with paint, most kids needed a lot of individual help. With the mold-able ease of Model Magic, and variety of materials, each kid became the master of their Spirit House. We had a few hick-ups with meeting times, and a long winter break, but when it came crunch time EVERYONE worked their hardest to create the vision they had in their head.
Through all the trials and tribulations of this project, we never lost sight of our goal; to use our art to convey expression, the ultimate tribute to a person you love and admire. Below is an image gallery of the Art 180’s Big Show, the final exhibition of our Spirit Houses.