Sandra Williams, associate professor of art, worked with students last fall at Park Middle School in Lincoln to create the “Stay Wild” community art project.
“Community-based arts have always been, and always will be, part of my creative agenda,” Williams said. “Instead of a ‘top-down’ lecture, I prefer that the community explore the role arts play in creative placemaking, have the tactile experience of handling cut paper in the form of stencils and engage with the top of animals in a creative manner.”
Initially, Williams received a Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts COVID-19 Rapid Response Faculty Research/Creative Grant to do the project in Kearney, as part of her exhibition, “Anthropocene Blues: Nature and the Social Imagination” on display last summer at the Museum of Nebraska Art. The college awarded nine COVID-19 Rapid Response grants totaling $10,782 to faculty to support unexpected alterations to research and creative activities due to the impact of COVID-19.
When she was unable to complete the project in Kearney, Williams instead reached out to Park Middle School art teacher Nissa Sturgeon to execute the project in Lincoln. Sturgeon was eager to have her students participate.
“I have had the pleasure of partnering with Sandra Williams in the past,” Sturgeon said. “She has brought some amazing experiences to Park for our students. One of the benefits, besides the art learning and activities, is for our students to see a woman of color in a leadership position. For ‘Stay Wild’ last fall, I knew students would be excited to get to use spray chalk, learn about endangered animals and, using complex stencils, to create beautiful final work.”
Williams co-collaborated with School of Art, Art History and Design alumna Emma Devries, ‘16, an exhibition design assistant at the International Quilt Museum, to create 50 kits consisting of one three-part stencil (designed for creation on laser cutters to facilitate mass production) and two to three colors of spray chalk.
“I could not have done it without her help,” Williams said. “Having someone like Emma who is excellent at Illustrator and understands the role of an institution of higher knowledge in a community was a tremendous help to me.”
Devries helped digitize Williams’ drawings so they could be laser cut.
“This process involved turning the images into vectors and cleaning up lines to make the cutting process simpler,” Devries said. “Some of the drawings like the frog had a cut time of a few minutes while the tiger took about 45 minutes for one layer. We worked on two laser cutters for two hours at a time at the makerspace to complete the cuts.”
Devries has worked with Williams before and says it is a fun and fulfilling experience.
“She was my mentor for both of my UCARE projects that explored meaningful engagement with museum audiences, and the ‘Stay Wild’ project is certainly within my area of interest,” Devries said. “I loved the thought of creating something that would engage kids with art during an uncertain time and provide an opportunity to be outdoors.”
Williams met with the Park Middle School students via Zoom and created a video to show how it works, while Sturgeon was on site to assist them.
“My students used Professor Williams’ stencils that she gave us and spray chalked the animals in multiple layers,” Sturgeon said. “There was a tree frog, a rock hopper penguin, a tiger and a panda. Then students, once they had a grasp of the process, created their own layered stencils. Student subjects included a giraffe, leopard, monarch butterfly, goat, cat, dinosaur, and many more.”
Sturgeon said the project was a wonderful addition to their semester.
“Students were highly invested and absolutely loved spray painting their animal on the school sidewalks, and then showing others what they had done,” she said. “We talked about how we can lift the spirits of complete strangers in this time of COVID by simply providing a little artwork for them as they walk along. It worked out well because we were doing the final works outside in the fresh air.”
Charlotte Everts, principal at Park, appreciated the project, too.
“She wrote a thank you letter to the students for the beautiful addition to our school,” Sturgeon said. “Many students said it was their favorite thing that they have ever done in art class.”
Devries said she was thrilled with the responses from the students.
“Their excitement at doing something new and working creatively within a team is evident with the feedback and the quality of their stencil work,” she said.
Williams said what she hoped students got from the experience was a sense of community.
“The most significant learning experiences, I think, really come when you are with others outside working together,” she said. “I think that they do gain a number of motor visual skills, like learning how to create a multi-part stencil was great for them. But really, the thing that was important to me was that aspect of working together. It was a joyful experience that generated excitement. Especially at this time, I think that a lot of people can be unified through their love of animals and taking these images and making this pictorial rewilding of their environment. They do research, and maybe they can reflect back on what are the threats and what are my own practices that I can change. That’s a tall order, and I’m not expecting change tomorrow. Community arts involves planting trees that you will never stand in the shade of.”
Sturgeon said community arts projects like this are important.
“I think that the public often have no idea what happens in the schools,” she said. “I think this was a way for us to show neighbors and visitors what we are about. It shows that our students care about the environment and are invested in making sure we take care of our world. Public art is important because everyone gets to see it, admire it, think about it. It is just there in their world.”
Williams plans to take “Stay Wild” to other locations in the coming months. This spring, her honors course, Arts Activism and Community” will do the project with a Lincoln Public Schools Community Learning Center. She also will work with School of Art, Art History & Design alumna Kyren (Conley) Gibson (B.F.A. 2011), who is executive director of the Carnegie Arts Center to bring “Stay Wild” to Alliance, Nebraska, this summer.
She will also bring “Stay Wild” to community members in Las Vegas, Nevada, in 2022 where her exhibition, “Anthropocene Blues: Nature and the Social Imagination” will be on display at the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art.
“I really think the community project is what the director loved — that it is an extension of the exhibition,” Williams said. “The animals will change so they are specific to Nevada.”
Williams likes that the art can be recreated anywhere and is grateful for the support of grants like the COVID-19 Rapid Response grants, which makes projects like this possible.
“I could not have made this happen without those Hixson-Lied emergency Covid relief funds,” Williams said. “None of this is possible without the Hixson-Lied Endowment. That opening up of possibilities comes from our wonderful benefactor.”