With the recent release of BWL’s 28th consecutive school calendar, Maryann Gelula and the seniors in her Studio Art electives are making their own mark in time. Each of the class’s last twelve versions has garnered first or second prize in the Association of Graphic Communications contest; this year’s edition looks to represent the lineage well. A collection of abstract paintings, it draws inspiration from seasonally provocative poetry and the dynamic natural world.
The idea began last spring, when Ms. Gelula and her twelve Studio Art XI students, the very same group who are now seniors in Studio Art XII, sat around the long tables in her room and brainstormed. After a unit in which they each took a line from Robert Frost’s sonnet “Acquainted with the Night” and captured its mood in painting, they decided to explore the medium further. With spirited debate, students agreed upon who would take each month, then sought complementary poems. They came in with Dickinson, Rossetti, Sandberg, Hughes, and others and, as a class, they agreed upon the best excerpt within each. “The selected verse almost acts as a title, a clue into the work,” says Ms. Gelula.
Some of this penchant for poetry goes back before Ms. Gelula’s 33-year tenure at Birch Wathen Lenox School, back to her own schoolgirl days at Birch Wathen. She recalls when Headmistress Edith Wathen would visit her classes and read “six or eight” poems. “She would always ask which one we liked the best, and when we told her, she would hand us a copy right there.” By the end of the year, each student received his or her own personalized collection of favorites.
When Studio Art XII began this September, the class had less than two months to translate their raw ingredients – a calendar month, a snippet of verse, some inspiration from the natural world – into a camera-ready copy for the printer, New York’s FLM Graphics. “For me, the idea really started with the poem,” says Sophia Inkeles ‘12, whose portrayal of “July,” with its vibrant grasses before flaming orange sky, stems from William Cullen Bryant’s verse: “It is a sultry day: the sun has drunk/ The dew that lay upon the morning grass.” But for Evan Friedland ‘12, the initial inspiration was “definitely nature.” His “February” suggests a winter sky pierced by snow-laden branches.
Classes were quiet and productive, but also supportive. Students shared ideas about colors and composition and, three times, the class simply critiqued each others’ pieces, offering more formalized suggestions. Some pieces changed dramatically over the six weeks students were painting, and all students put in extra time outside the two double-periods the class meets each week.
One challenge, according to Ms. Gelula, was “to make a flow between the pieces.” This involved her deft balance of honoring personal style and aiming to have the work come together as a whole. Jordan Dannenberg ’12, who painted “November,” seems to understand: “There are some limitations and directions, but even if it is based on a known concept, art can be completely 100 percent original.” In the end, Ms. Gelula says, “We really have one work made of twelve parts.”
Dominique Ramirez ’12 took the extra step of arranging the fonts, typing in the actual calendar, and transcribing the verse. She also contributed “October” (pictured on home page), based on Robert Frost’s poem of that title: “O hushed October morning mild,’/ Thy leaves have ripened to the fall; / Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild, /Should waste them all.” In perhaps the most dramatic piece in the collection, its swirling vortexes of bold reds and yellows engulf the bare limbs of the foreground. “Art allows me to express myself in a different way. I can put my emotions into my painting, and this influences how people look at it,” she says.
As the chair of the Art Department, responsible for the original work that greets the BWL community in the lobby and hallways, Ms. Gelula summates that she has “one goal: To help students find out about themselves … Tapping into the creative side changes the way you see the world.” Amid the “pressured, technologically-driven world,” that she sees, art class provides an important alternative. Sophia Inkeles puts it clearly: “You’re not going over what someone else has already done; art comes directly from you.”