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Learning from the Masters

Featured Photo from Learning from the Masters

High-school art students channel famous creators to bring art education to life in Winter Springs.

Fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger, photographer Annie Leibovitz, and painter Frida Kahlo recently paid a visit to curious students at Layer Elementary School.

Well... not exactly.

To clarify, a group of Winter Springs High School students did recently portray those artists – plus 10 more – in an interactive art history lesson for Layer fifth graders. The innovative project, titled Passport through Art History, took over much of the school as the Winter Springs High teens embodied 13 well-known artists from the past and present. The high schoolers acted as if they really were the artists, discussing their lives, work techniques, and processes with the youngsters, all while in costume and surrounded by carefully crafted scenery and props.

One of the project’s goals was to educate the elementary kids about viable artistic careers. Amy Copeland, Layer’s fifth-grade team leader, was impressed with how the teenagers connected with the youngsters.

“This project brought art to life for the children,” Amy says. “The high-school kids did a magnificent job of being those artists.”

Shepherding the project were WSHS art instructor Sherry Peters and her colleague, photography instructor Julie Athos. In addition to career education, another important goal was to showcase diversity.

“We really wanted to find a variety of types of art, but also diversity among the artists, so the elementary kids could find someone to relate to,” Julie says.

The project highlighted the work of painters, street artists, fashion designers, photographers, and a sculptor. The teens dressed like the artists and achieved the right look with help from a professional hairstylist and a makeup artist.

The high schoolers also consulted with a professional set designer who helped them transform classrooms at Layer into artistic settings. Several rooms became art and photography studios. Another was turned into an abandoned New York City subway – complete with fake rats – to represent the gritty environment of a street artist.

At the start of the day, the fifth graders received passport booklets, which they brought with them to every artist station they visited. At each stop, they received a passport stamp. The teens kept the children engaged with interactive activities, including coloring, drawing, and sandpapering wood blocks.

Nathalie Hernandez, a WSHS senior, portrayed renowned Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. For her hands-on activity, Nathalie – as Frida – asked the students to draw sketches of her.

Layer student Nyssa Jimenez whipped out a sketch resembling Frida in mere minutes and was matter-of-fact when explaining how she was able to do that.

“I’ve been drawing a lot at home,” says Nyssa, whose favorite artistic subject matter is animals.

For her part, Nathalie had Frida’s look down pat, from the colorful flowers in her hair to the trademark unibrow, and Nathalie conducted her lessons from a wheelchair, just as Frida was bound to the chair later in life. The teen has been a fan of the legendary artist for several years.

“I really like that she was just herself,” says Nathalie. “Frida stuck up for feminist rights, and she did a lot of self-portraits, which I like, too.”

Like Nyssa, Layer Elementary student Emma Spalthoff took the passport tour. Her favorite artist was photographer Cindy Sherman, portrayed by WSHS senior Chloe Hale. Emma says she and her classmates helped Cindy prepare for a photo shoot. The photographer was taking unusual, conceptual self-portraits long before selfies became commonplace.

“I liked her because she takes pictures of herself, but all dressed up,” Emma says. “We gave her this weird wig and a hat and bright green shoes to wear.” 

All the teens in the Passport through Art History project are members of Winter Springs High’s Art Honor Society. In addition to the students who portrayed the artists, other teens served as models for the artists and helped set up and take down the abundance of props.

Winter Springs High has also taken this immersive art history program to Winter Springs Elementary and Walker Elementary schools. The project was funded by a grant from The Foundation for Seminole County Public Schools and additional fundraising.

“I had this idea stewing around in the back of my head for about 15 years,” Sherry says. “The students we have this year are such go-getters. I thought, ‘This is the group to do this project with.’”

Julie says it has been rewarding for her and Sherry, who both co-sponsor the Art Honor Society, to watch the teens teach and mentor the elementary kids.

“All of the high-school students who are part of this project are passionate about art,” Julie says. “When they teach younger kids about things they are passionate about, you can see a spark.”

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