Broken blenders and treks through the woods are not the ordinary concerns of students in an art class. However, those are just two of the experiences encountered by the nine students enrolled in an art short course taught Jan. 7-18 at Freed-Hardeman University.
“Art Out of Nothing,” taught by Algene Steele, offered a unique learning opportunity for the students, most of whom took the course to fulfill a humanities requirement. Beginning with newsprint and water, the group created art paper as the first step toward producing a nine-page, plus cover, book comprised of their own artwork.
To make the art paper, students shredded newsprint, mixed it with water, and then used a blender to turn it into pulp. The mixture was then pressed into a wooden frame over another piece of wood with holes for drainage. To speed the process along, students stood on the wood to express even more water from the pulp. Finally, it was placed on drying racks to complete the process.
After they made approximately 150 pages of paper, they moved toward creating tools and pigment for their art. “We try to buy as little as possible,” Steele says. “ We try to recycle or get what we need from nature.” Therefore, the next class experience included an excursion to Chickasaw State Park to gather whatever they thought they could use to make brushes and paint: twigs, pine needles, feathers, nuts, berries, moss and other plant material. Someone found a recipe for making paint from Kool-Aid powder, thereby enabling them to have colors not possible with moss and black walnut hulls. Twigs, pine needles, horsehair were turned into brushes—and if those didn’t work, one could always use his fingers to spread paint.
Students were expected to produce 12 pages of original art, using the paper, pigment and tools they had created. They gave each class member a page and three pages were used in books kept at the university.
For Nicole Cravens, a senior from Henderson, and the other students, the benefits of the class extended beyond the actual art. “We learnd from each other and had to think outside the box,” she said.
Fortunately, group interaction is part of what Steele had in mind when he created the class five years ago. “It’s about group dynamics and problem-solving, in addition to the fact that they are creating art,” he said.
“It’s fun to work together; I like it!” Elisha Partain, a sophomore arts and humanities major, said as she worked on pressing pulp into page-sized sheets.
When broken blenders slowed the mixing process and created a time shortage, Cravens decided they needed to call a team meeting. “We had to think about cutting the pages in half,” she said. The group decided they had enough paper-–if they made smaller pages.
The completed art itself is as varied as the students themselves. Some developed their work around a theme. Aaron Rumford, a junior criminal justice major, for example, did items loosely connected to computers: a YouTube logo, Mario, PacMan—before he succumbed to a desire to finish more quickly and switched to finger-painting. Kara Gott, a junior arts and humanities major, completed a series based on children’s stories, including “Rapunzel,” “The Giving Tree,” “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” and “Snow White.” Jamie Williams, a senior Bible major, concentrated on motivational words and Cravens completed a series of anchors. Why? “I just like them,” she said.
Completed pages were bound into twelve copies: one for each student, one for the university, one for the art department and one for the teacher. The cover features a universal no symbol imposed over a broken blender. Logan Thomas, a junior from Humboldt, created the design and made the block print carving. It was stamped on each art book which was then bound with loops of hemp.
The class concluded with a signing ceremony, because as Steele says, “If you own your work, you should be proud of it.” Finally, copies were presented to the university and to the art department.
Other than creating art from nothing, students “learned the value of creativity,” according to Williams. Rumford quickly added he had also learned a lot about problem solving and teamwork. According to Meredith Roland, a sophomore from Humboldt, she has taken a lot of short courses, but never before had she developed sore muscles from one. Making paper requires a good bit of physical exertion, they found. Some even wondered if it were possible to get physical education activity credit for the course.
Future youth minister James Couch, a senior media arts and Bible major, even found a way to relate the course to his intended career. Struggling to wring water from pieces of felt, a process he described as “fruitless,” he concluded that sometimes working with people can feel “fruitless” too. By the end of the two weeks, however, he and the other students, saw a finished product from their efforts and were sold on the process.
"I didn't realize this course was so completely hands on. But I ended up really liking it,” Drew Morrow, a senior criminal justice major, said. “I wish all my classes were like this."
Lessons learned, it was time for the final step—cleaning up their work space. After all, everybody does their share.
Art teacher Algene Steele discusses the process of creating art out of nothing with his students. The class used recycled and found items for their paper, pigment and brushes.
Bible major Jamie Williams cuts the sheets of paper for the art books in half. A time crunch forced the students to reduce the size of their pages.
Sheets of paper made from shredded newsprint dry on racks in the classroom. Students had blended the newsprint with water to create the pulp.
Criminal justice majors Aaron Rumford and Drew Morrow utilize grape Kool-Aid to create paint for their artwork.