School partners with local library to exhibit art
Artwork made by Grade 7 and 8 students at St. Thomas Community Christian School will be exhibited at the St. Thomas Public Library May 28 to June 25, highlighting the community’s loss of the heritage site Alma College one year ago.
Art specialist Peggy DeVries was hired for a short-term assignment at the school to engage the students in a local issue through art. On May 28, 2008, the historical gothic revival building Alma College burned down in St. Thomas. Nancy Baker, the school’s advancement director, says the loss affected everyone in the community.
Alma College was a girl’s school built in 1877 and closed in the 1980s. The building was mostly vacant since then, with demolition being planned for the building but a heritage campaign underway to save it. Alma was listed in 2005 as one of the top 10 most endangered heritage buildings in Canada.
DeVries worked with the students for several weeks to connect them with architectural heritage and make architecture from the 1800s relevant to their lives. The culminating project, entitled Legacy and Loss, will be displayed at the library for the community to view.
“The art project itself is exciting for the students because it’s not just learning how to paint and to do clay tiles and to do drawings, but it’s something that’s relevant to their community,” says Baker.
The exhibition features three displays. The first is called Imaging the Future, showcasing mixed media works of watercolour, ink and collages students made envisioning the future after studying photographs from Alma College and local Victorian homes.
Preserving the Past is the second part, featuring clay tiles the students made of various doors and windows at Alma College.
The third display is A Prayer of Confession, which shows a performance art project the students completed. Students each hand painted a plate with something of importance to them. DeVries explained the history of performance art, both in the Bible and society, and how it can bring transformation in the community and get people to think in a new way.
Students were then asked to contribute their plates to performance art, with the plates symbolizing heritage. Students wore a label of a different personality in St. Thomas, such as an engineer, teacher or pastor. Each student stated who their personality was, that they too were responsible for the loss of Alma College and said an idea of how they could have helped preserve the historical building.
Each student broke someone else’s plate, which symbolized how Alma College was not destroyed by the person who built it. The pile of broken plates represented the current rubble of Alma. They concluded with a prayer circle to pray for the brokenness in the world and ask God for healing.
DeVries says many students didn’t want to give up their plates, and they discussed how as Christians they are called into a life of sacrifice.
“It was very powerful for the students,” says DeVries, adding it is something she thinks they will remember.
The broken plates will be in a display case at the exhibition with some photos of the rubble at Alma.
DeVries says she is excited about students understanding the role of art in society and that artists have a large contribution. With a building like Alma being lost, she says society needs to consider how students are being taught art in schools. Art is often optional in high school, and without art instruction the value for art in culture may be lost, she notes.
“Those kids are our future and they are going to impact our culture,” says DeVries.
The students will be visiting the former Alma College site on May 28, a year after the fire. They will be taking part in another performance art, wearing all black with white gloves. The black symbolizes the loss and the white symbolizes the hope that as they remember Alma and each person’s part in its loss, things can improve moving forward.
“We are trying to really wed curriculum with serving our community and being part of our community,” says Baker.
The public is invited to a reception May 28, 6:30 - 8:30 p.m. at St. Thomas Public Library. Students will be on hand to discuss the exhibition and several dignitaries have been invited, including the mayor, MP and MPP. The Alma Alumni vice-president and Elgin County Historical Society chairperson will also be in attendance.