In 1923, a 48-foot Balsam fir was erected by the District of Columbia Public Schools to the south of the White House. The tree was decorated, lit, and named the “National Christmas Tree.” Though the trees have varied, the National Christmas Tree still stands, 94 years later. Surrounding the National Christmas Tree is the America Celebrates display where smaller evergreen trees are decorated with handmade ornaments to represent the unique history, culture, and heritage of each of the nation’s 56 states and territories.
This year, the Maryland State Arts Council selected YA roster artist Katherine Dilworth to design the ornaments for the Maryland state tree for the America Celebrates display. The artist has been integrating fabrics and felted fibers into her art for more than 20 years. Her work is shown in galleries throughout the U.S. and was included in two books. In her school residencies, Katherine teaches students how to sculpt loose wool into solid shapes and colorful, textured murals. For this project, however, her materials were quite different.
The artist worked with Ewell Elementary School students on Smith Island to make the ornaments for the 2017 Maryland state tree. Smith Island, Maryland’s only inhabited Chesapeake Bay Island, has about 250 residents and can only be reached by boat. Ewell, the largest of the communities on Smith, is home to the island’s sole elementary school (the K-7 Ewell Elementary School serves a total of 11 students).
The Chesapeake Bay is integral to the lives of the island’s inhabitants where watermen collect fish and shellfish, like oysters and Blue crabs from its waters. Katherine chose to craft the ornaments from oyster shells to bring attention to the Bay’s endangered species. “I wanted to highlight the Chesapeake Bay on the Maryland tree, particularly focusing on animals and plants that have been threatened or endangered,” said the artist. She and the students looked at animals like the American Bald Eagle, once threatened by human behavior, but whose populations have since been revitalized.
“I contacted the Ewell Elementary School on Smith Island because the kids there would have an intimate knowledge of life on the bay,” Katherine explained. The students painted the smooth, concave surfaces of the sea creatures’ shells with wildlife native to the region: Baltimore checkerspot butterflies, Blue crabs, Seagulls, Geese, Rockfish, and of course, oysters. The decorated mollusks awash in the blues of the Chesapeake hang proudly on the Maryland State tree this year, reminding us of our relationship with the natural world and representing a way of life only found in Maryland.
The America Celebrates display is free and open to visitors throughout the month. Learn about last year’s ornaments here.
Katherine Dilworth introduces students to the centuries-old art form of felting. Learn how you can bring her programs into your school today by visiting her artist page.
By Lori Mellendick, fifth-grade art teacher at Ducketts Lane Elementary
This December, my fifth-grade students gathered around a table functioning as young archaeologists, researchers, and artists. Their collaborative clay mural sat before them covered in grout waiting to be exposed. As my students began to buff the dried grout away, the ceramic animals they sculpted and arranged in the mural earlier in the fall began to pop through. My class had been working toward this moment since Young Audiences visual artist Amanda Pellerin first arrived as our artist-in-residence in October.
The massive four-by-eight-foot panels of the mural took up the entire floor. I didn’t realize how busy my classroom could be as we built something so large. Slowly, a vast food web stretched across the mural revealing the entire habitat network of the Chesapeake Bay.
On this final culminating day, my students experienced what we like to call their “Aha!” moment. They took a step back and discovered harmony behind their mural as a collaboration. The looks on their faces expressed the “now we get it” type of feeling. They ended by celebrating each other by giving and receiving compliments of their work. The positive energy in the room was out of control!
In October, my students had spent five days conducting research of Maryland animals surrounding the Chesapeake Bay as a theme. They built an understanding of how these animals survive depending on their diets. The students also investigated the Chesapeake’s surrounding habitat by studying the water cycles, plants, and local natural resources. In order to display these facts on a visual web, the students had to be imaginative. This is where Amanda’s expertise came in. Amanda guided students through the necessary steps to creatively assemble this piece of work.
There were times when kids pondered whether or not they should take an artistic risk by making verbal decisions in front of a group. When energy subsided, some surprising moments occurred when a few particularly shy students stepped up to the plate and made executive decisions for the group. It was a wonderful chance for students to express creativity in ways that they didn’t expect to, especially within the subject of science.
I wanted to find a meaningful residency that would integrate the arts into the subject of science. I knew that this was the perfect opportunity to find a project that could cover environmental research in a creative way. Knowing Amanda’s experience as a Young Audiences roster artist, I knew that the kids would get a lot out of the program.
It was important to bring in an outside artist because it gave some of our teachers an understanding of how the artistic process works. Teaching children artistic behaviors is important because it demonstrates tasks such as researching, modifying, and executing that energy into a product. It doesn’t work like a magic trick where *poof*, a beautiful piece of artwork suddenly appears. It takes work. It’s similar to the scientific process. You formulate a hypothesis, test your theories, and then provide a conclusion statement in the end. In this case, our conclusion was a mural that demonstrated a deeper understanding of the Chesapeake Bay.
Using a tactile form such as clay, gave students a substantial gift in the end. Since these fifth graders will be going onto middle school very soon, I wanted to give them an opportunity to leave their mark upon the school. In April, there will be an unveiling of the mural in a reserved space across from a beautiful fountain. Strong light filters into this area which will give the mural the perfect spotlight that it deserves. We can’t wait to put it up!
When you are studying something across the board of a curriculum, it resonates with children. It hits on so many different content levels. These experiences give so much more meaning to the students than you would expect. I immediately go back to my own experiences and remember the impact that resident artists had upon me in school. I wanted to give my students that same opportunity.