Welding Collaboration into Art: Crossroads’ Students Make Sculptures for Humane Society

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By Angelina Bellebuono for the steffen thomas museum of art

In the shade of a warmer-than-usual early April morning, three neatly dressed young men watch attentively as Rutledge artist Blue Chilton demonstrates the welding process he uses to create art. Anthony Williamson, Austin Turner and Brenden Portwood wear khaki pants and white golf shirts. They hold welding masks, and they pay rapt attention to Chilton. Each takes a turn with the welder, and gradually they feel the process enough to understand what it will take to attach metal to metal. As team leaders on a collaborative art project created through the Steffen Thomas Museum’s arts outreach program, Creative Teens Earning Green, the three are learning about the final step that will bring their art work to its completed state before being installed as outdoor art at the Humane Society of Morgan County (HSMC), with a public unveiling on Wednesday, May 13 at 10 a.m.

This project began just over a month ago under the guidance of the STMA facilitators, Elizabeth Collins and Chuck Hanes. During the school year, the two teach weekly at Morgan County Crossroads Alternative School working with 10-12 students each time. “The Steffen Thomas Museum has been doing arts outreach with Crossroads for thirteen years,” STMA director Karen Strelecki says.

According to Strelecki, this year’s project incorporates two additional community collaborative components—working with Blue Chilton as a mentor artist and permanently installing the finished work at the HSMC Adoption Center on Fairgrounds Road in Madison. Collins and Hanes have worked with the museum for four years facilitating art instruction at Crossroads. This year, they’ve led students through a variety of projects leading to this final experience. The students’ work has been shown in various locations, and much of it is available for purchase in the Madison Artist Guild’s MAGallery and the STMA gift shop. But for this project, Collins said the group began with a field trip to see Chilton’s art on his Rutledge Farm. Next, the students got busy with disassembly.

“We took a trailer of old metal junk, bicycles and assorted parts of things to the students at the school. Then they took things apart. They had fun with that,” Collins explains. After the disassembling activity, Collins and Hanes asked the students to look at the assortment of metal pieces and try to “see” parts of animals, just as Chilton describes as part of his creative process. “I can see something in the metal pieces,” he says to the group gathered for the welding instruction. The task was not so simple for the students, Collins says. The art of seeing a cat’s face in a shovel or nails as bird feet isn’t something that happens naturally. “It took some time,” she says. “We told them we needed at least a cat and a dog, since the art was going to the Humane Society.”

Back in Chilton’s studio on this warm April morning, Williamson, taller than the other boys, helps Portwood adjust his welding mask. Williamson professes to love art. “I have always liked drawing,” he says, “especially cartoon characters.”

But despite his love of drawing, Williamson admits that seeing animal parts in junk metal was challenging. He figured it out, though, because now he points to one of the sculptures whose parts have been tacked together by Chilton. “That’s my cat,” he says, with noticeable pride. The cat is joined by three other animals constructed by the design teams— a dog, a bird and a rat. All four animals will fit together in a tableau that she hopes will make visitors to the adoption center chuckle, Collins explains.

According to Collins, Chilton will weld the animals together to make the tableau. But this morning, three young men learn about welding and discuss their art experience with Morgan County Schools Superintendent James Woodard and HSMC Board President Jim Winkler, who both made the trip to Chilton’s studio to get a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes efforts in this artistic community collaboration. Woodard greets each of the young men, shaking their hands and purposefully making eye contact. “You all have good handshakes,” he said to them. “That’s an important skill in life.”

The three young men stand a little taller. They’ve worked hard to learn a process, and they seem to be pleased with the experience as they thank Chilton and turn over their welding masks before returning to school. But this art experience is far from over. Soon Williamson’s shovel-faced cat will be joined by his classmates’ dog, bird and rat as the sculpture finds a home in the Humane Society’s outdoor landscape, where it will be enjoyed by the community for years to come. For more information on this project or other STMA arts outreach programs, contact Arts Outreach Coordinator, Nicole Corbi at 706-342-7557 or www.steffenthomas.org The public is invited to attend the unveiling of the sculpture on Wednesday, May 13 at 10 a.m. at the Humane Society of Morgan County, 1170 Fairgrounds Road, Madison, Ga. Students will be receiving individual awards and light refreshments will be served.

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