When Jonathan De Vries suggested to his grade eleven sculpture class, four years ago, that they should design and create a Christmas tree to decorate the front lobby at Hamilton District Christian School (HDCH), he had no idea that it was the first of many different trees he would be building with his students at Christmas. The tree project “grew” into something much larger than he had anticipated.
Traditionally, student council members at HDCH had displayed an artificial tree in the front lobby each Christmas. Students would collect and store cans of food for the Food Drive under and around the tree. When Jonathan caught wind that the tree might not be set up one year, he saw an opportunity for change. He challenged his art students to design a meaningful and unique tree that could be built, using resources that were easily available in the Hamilton community. After researching different trees, students agreed upon the Cedar of Lebanon, an ancient tree that reaches back over two thousand years. They loved the gnarled, windswept look of the tree, as well as its Biblical significance to the Christmas story. The class learned to use jigsaws, sanders and routers to create their tree out of plywood. The final product was an eight foot tree, which they set up directly under a skylight in the front lobby of the school for the Christmas season. The base displayed a Christmas star, inscribed with Hebrews 11:1.
The following Christmas, the students were the ones that approached Jonathan about designing another tree for the front lobby. This time, they modelled their design after an art project that they had read about. A couple who lived in California had built a metal frame over their driveway, from which they hung hundreds of 2-litre pop bottles. The bottles were filled with an inch of water mixed with either blue or green food colouring. When the sun shone on the bottles, it created shade for their car. It also created spots of green and blue light all over the driveway, causing a cool, aquatic feel. The students thought it would be fun to incorporate this idea into the front lobby, using the skylights as their source of light.
As the project began to take shape, the excitement of joining in to participate spread through the student body. Woodworking students volunteered their time to steam-bend fourteen foot long pieces of wood, creating a much different effect than the previous year. Other students collected hundreds of smaller plastic water bottles, and hung them from the tree by fastening fishing line under the caps. It was a tedious process that involved many volunteer hours, but students were thrilled with the results.
By the time his third Christmas at HDCH came along, Jonathan knew that students would be asking about a tree for the lobby. He looked for ideas online, and came across a unique story about a new form of street art that had been gaining popularity throughout the United States. Grandmothers had begun taking their crafts from their living rooms to the streets, covering outdoor items with bands of crocheted yarn. They made what could be considered “makeshift sweaters” wrapping objects from fire hydrants and sign poles to trees in the park. “Yarn bombing” began to spread across the country, with the goal of adding a little warmth to cold urban cityscapes, and to bring a smile to peoples’ faces.
Jonathan thought this would be the perfect idea for his next tree, and the students loved it. There was only one problem: he had never crocheted before, and had no idea how. For the first time, the students became the teachers, and the teacher became the student. Grade 12 student Janessa Luth taught her teacher to crochet, and Jonathan began to practice every chance he got. For the next three weeks, he could be found in his classroom before school, during breaks, and after school, crocheting behind his desk. He admits that in the evenings, after his kids were tucked in bed, he pulled out the crocheting again. He wasn’t the only one. Students were crocheting on the bus to and from school, and in front of the television at nights. Even students who were not initially involved in the creating of the lobby tree began to get involved, helping out with the crocheting. Jonathan, along with woodworking teacher Rich VanderWier, went out to the back of the school property and found a dead tree. They cut off a large branch and managed to squeeze it into the art room door on its side. It was here that the students “yarn-bombed” their tree, fitting it with a decorative Christmas sweater for the season. They added ornaments which they also crocheted from the same yarn, and set it up under the skylight in the front lobby. It was truly a “hands-on” project that involved much of the student body. When asked if Jonathan has crocheted anything since, he smiled and answered, “no”.
The idea for this year’s Christmas tree came from a project that art and woodworking students had collaborated on during the previous year. They used plywood and stained glass to create beautiful birds to hang in the entrance of the school. The result of the combination of these two materials was stunning, and students were anxious to use them again for their tree.
They also wanted to make sure that this year’s tree was the biggest that it had ever been. The plywood tree that had been built the first year reached eight feet, so this year the students designed the tree to be twelve feet tall. Although most of the work was done in the woodworking classroom, the project became another interdisciplinary piece. At times, there were students running back and forth between the shop and the art classroom to embed the coloured glass into the plywood pieces. The result of this hard work was a beautiful, stately Christmas tree that, when the light from the skylight caught the glass, created a stunning reflection of green and red light around it.
Creating a different tree each year for the front lobby at Christmas was not necessarily a planned thing. But Jonathan loves it when the students, initially in grade nine when the first tree was built and now in grade twelve, come up to him and tell him which tree is their favorite, and why. “Everyone has a different favorite. Students who were involved in making the trees have a connection to the process of what it takes to design and create these trees, and they carry a sense of ownership for them.”
Can we expect another Christmas tree in the front lobby of HDCH next December? Jonathan says that students are already approaching him with their ideas, looking to find ways to make the next one even better. There is talk of incorporating lights, and even the hopes of coordinating the lights to respond to the sounds of the nearby piano.
Jonathan has enjoyed watching the transfer of ownership within the project from himself to the students. “These trees have begun to take on a life of their own!” he says. “They’ve captured the imagination of students with a wide range of interests and it has been fun to watch students within a wider range of disciplines become eager to get involved as well”. Jonathan’s project is an inspiring example of collaborative creativity. Let’s hope the HDCH lobby sees many more resourceful and inventive Christmas trees in the years to come!