Innovative Art Project Builds Confidence in Idlewild Students
Librarian Stephanie Rodda and artist David Mah with Jordan Saulsberry, Nikki Cobbins, & Alex O'Connor.
Idlewild Elementary School’s fifth-graders had a big surprise waiting for them when they returned to school this year. The imaginative animal poems and block prints they worked hard to create in fourth grade were published into a new book, Everything I See Is New and Strange, Creatures from the World of Walter Anderson, thanks to a grant from the Junior League of Memphis.
Ten-year-old Damone Higgins Jr. was especially excited, since his block print of a great blue heron graces the book’s cover. He’s one of 84 students who participated in the project; 42 student works are included in the book.
Higgins, a boy of few words but many ideas, enjoys drawing comics. But like many of his classmates, he’s discovered his inner artist at Idlewild. At this Memphis City science and technology optional school, faculty invest a lot of energy in its art program as well.
“It was a great way to start the year,” says David Mah, Idlewild’s innovative art instructor who had the brainstorm for the book and the research project that accompanied it. Mah, who came to the school six years ago after 20 years as a freelance artist, was inspired on his first day at the Midtown school. There he spotted an underappreciated original Walter Anderson blockprint (2’ x 8’) of Noah’s Ark animals that has hung in the main hallway of the school since the 1960s. Its origin is a mystery.
Mah, who has a masters of art education from Memphis College of Art, and who understood the print’s financial and aesthetic value, has given the piece a new life, and Idlewild students, faculty, and parents a new appreciation for Walter Anderson’s art form. Anderson, a nationally recognized artist, was best known for his stylized depictions of wildlife and landscapes of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
“A couple of years ago I decided it was important for the kids to know they had something valuable on the walls of their school; something they could be proud of. It was a way of giving them a sense of ownership to an important work of art,” Mah explains.
Idlewild librarian, Stephanie Rodda, and Mah developed an idea for a cross-curriculum project, integrating science, literature, and art on Walter Anderson and submitted a grant proposal to the Junior League. They received the Innovative Teaching Grant and began working on the project last spring. Rodda talked to the students about Anderson, his art, and the animals that inhabit the Gulf Coast region. They read an illustrated book about him and browsed the Walter Anderson museum website, (walterandersonmuseum.org).
After introducing them to some of the animals, Rodda and the fourth-graders developed a list of Gulf Coast animals. “There is such diversity with so many different ecosystems.” notes Rodda, referring to the ocean, rivers, lakes, swamps, and forests of the area. The list included everything from egrets and raccoons to whales. Each student picked an animal from a lottery, researched that animal, wrote a paper, and composed a poem about life from the animal’s perspective.
Mah and Rodda challenged the students to adopt Anderson’s attitude that “Everything I see is new and strange” to help them discover the uniqueness of their animals while writing their poems. Since Anderson’s motto inspired their work so greatly, it seemed the perfect title for their book.
Student Parker McLean was fascinated by the artist. “He would pick up an animal on the beach, ‘dead or alive,’ Jordan Saulsberry chimes in, “put it in his hat, look at it, and paint it,” she says elatedly. “I learned a lot about the cormorant, a water bird that can’t fly,” McLean added. “We had to walk out of the library like our animal would walk,” McLean says, squatting and imitating the way a cormorant might move.
The centerpiece of the project was the creation of an animal block print, using similar tools to those Anderson used. Part of the Junior League grant was used to buy project supplies; the other part paid for the book printing.
The students sketched their animals, cut the animal shapes out of adhesive backed foam, carved details into the foam with a pencil, stuck the animal on a piece of sturdy cardboard to make a template, rolled ink onto the template, placed a piece of manila paper on the inky template, pressed and smoothed the paper over it then carefully removed it. “They impressed me,” says Mah. “I didn’t think [the project] would turn out as good as it did. It taught me a lot about having high expectations for my kids,” he adds.
The most significant outcome of the project was how it bolstered the confidence of so many children. “The students whose work appears in [the book] are not necessarily the best and brightest,” notes Mah. “There are higher and lower achieving students and for some it’s the first time they’ve received any recognition. It’s good to see the kids who have thus far been underachievers excel, and for them to see themselves having accomplished something. It’s a big deal for them and their families,” Mah says proudly.
He cites Higgins, who has been challenged at home and at school in the past, as one example. “He has come a long way over the years…and developed a niche for art. Other kids admire his work. It’s been a real positive thing for him. He was beaming when he found out his art was on the cover,” says Mah.