With almost a mile of foil, tape and string, high school students in Spanish Fork created art in action Monday.
More than 120 Maple Mountain High School students were the first ever to participate in one of Oliver Herring’s Areas for Action art workshops within a school setting. Herring, an internationally renowned visiting artist, will be doing four more events in Utah Valley schools throughout this week.
“We’re experimenting on site in schools, to see what comes of it, to see how we can make this educational,” Herring said.
Herring and Jethro Gillespie, a Maple Mountain art teacher, have been collaborating on art projects for about four years now. Gillespie felt Monday's event was a natural result of what Herring is doing in the art world.
“He pushes people to focus on exploration. He helps people engage in creative acts. He wants to connect people to art, to give them an access point," Gillespie said. "As an educator, I am trying to do the same."
It is a different type of art than students normally encounter in a classroom. Often within a school setting, the students are focused on learning art skills, but Herring wanted them to get beyond that.
He wanted them to experience the process of art-making, because he feels the distance between utter failure and utter masterpiece is not very far apart in the art process.
“The goal really is to focus on the process, than on product. This activity is a way to focus on a very open-ended process,” Herring said. “It’s not a terrible thing to not know what you are doing, to see what comes out of you.”
For Herring, art is trying, failing and experimenting -- that is what makes art. In the past few years, he’s created these same types of action art experiences in museums in New York, China, Japan and Florida -- so far, only with adults.
His goal with these experiences is to bring people into the art, both those who identify as artists and those who don’t consider themselves creative.
“An activity like this is not only designed for people who are interested in art, it’s really for anybody who wants to think creatively. Anybody is a creative being, not everybody is an artist,” Herring said.
“What I’m trying to do is bring a lot more people into using contemporary art as a tool to express themselves and experiment with.”
Herring started Maple Mountain’s experience by picking three students to take a pose interacting with one of the props on the stage within the auditorium. Those three students -- junior Emily Johnson, and sophomores Jake Roylance and Matt Grimshaw -- had to hold that pose for the next 90 minutes, as their fellow students decorated and interacted with them. Emily took a standing pose between two posts. On a platform about 10 feet away, Jake sank into a thoughtful kneeling pose reminiscent of Rodin’s Thinker, and Matt lay down in front of him.
At first, while a handful of students immediately went to work on the ones who were posing, many other students split up into groups and made small items -- swords, animals, flowers, headwear, glasses and masks. Herring circulated among the students, encouraging them to think bigger, much bigger. He told them to get away from the “itty bitty projects” they can do at home with their own roll of foil.
“Use the entire stage,” he said.
Soon the students followed his advice, and Emily looked less like a teen, and more like a mythological creature with large spikes and claws extending from her arms and hands. She also was no longer separate from the backdrop she was in, but a large part of it, with lines of foil and tape tying her to the scene, while also extending out from her.
The students then linked her structure to the boys. Lines of tape, string and foil draped between them and around them, with offshoots linking both structures to a ladder and the ceiling, and later, a piano.
One student mentioned how much he enjoyed being able to make whatever popped into his head without restrictions or an assignment outline, like he was so used to in school. He also thought working in a group setting -- with only the rule that they could add to the piece, not subtract from it -- felt like the students were building something collectively.
Another student mentioned it was hard to see some of her creations be destroyed, but Herring explained it wasn’t necessarily destroying, but changing. And when people started throwing foil balls into the tent structure made to link the piano to the rest of the piece, Herring said it wasn’t destroying it, but just changing it. The same went for a few other students who joined the piece as time went on, taking up poses as part of the structure.
For Emily, posing for the entire 90-minute experience was tough. She deliberately challenged herself and chose a pose, with her arms raised and spread a bit, which she knew would be “hard to hold.” As her hands both went numb and the heat rose under the layers of foil, and she could not see what she was becoming in the piece, she realized a bit more about art for herself.
“Being uncomfortable made me think about the idea of being so uncomfortable. Art shouldn’t be comfortable to do,” she said.
Herring agreed with her assessment. True art, he said, should stretch the artist and make him or her vulnerable. He also encouraged the students to stretch beyond where they are now, to where they will be, even if it is not in the art field.
In the end, he told the high school students they had set the bar high for the rest of the schools involved in the workshop this week.
“This really does look fantastic, there are some amazing things here,” he said.