Wonder Room – an ArtStarts project with James Thompson Elementary

20141029_135721Well, this picture pretty much tells it all.  I can’t say what a treat it was to see 60 pre-teens totally silent and captivated while exploring their natural environment with all of their senses.  This was exactly my original hope when I designed the Wonder Room project – to awaken student’s awareness and appreciation of the world around them through facilitated, interdisciplinary, multi-sensory arts activities.  The original concept came to me during an “AH-HA” moment that I had while listening to a TED talk, where arts and education guru, Ken Robinson, simply defined the term “aesthetics”.  He explained how, contrary to “anaesthetics” (which numb the senses), “aesthetics”, or more largely the arts, enable one’s senses to open, and consequently one’s imagination to spark.   Since hearing that very cogent definition of this word that had previously seemed so ineffable to me, this truth has come to inform all of my artistic work.

The Wonder Room project was inspired by the Kunstkammer (Cabinets of Curiosities) tradition of Renaissance Europe, (encyclopedic collections of objects belonging to natural history, geology, ethnography, archaeology, religion, and art).  And I was thrilled to partner with Richmond’s James Thompson Elementary on this project, because they were the perfect candidate for this idea.   Their school is adjacent to the stunning Terra Nova Regional Park, and they have access to 30 iPads which the students were able to use for audio recordings and photography.

During our 6 weeks together, I had the pleasure to work with Ms. McKaskill and Mr. Dimmick’s Grade 5-7 students, who accumulatively gathered natural, man-made and self-created curiosities for their own collective Wonder Room.   Ultimately, this colorful space became a memory theater of the world as these students saw, felt, heard, tasted and smelled it.  And they were able to invite their school peers to visit this magical exhibit.

To build their room, I led students in a wide variety of activities.  The first of which took place during a nature work through the park.  For the first few engagements, we focused on two senses in particular.

20141015_112120 20141016_113404SMELL: We collected natural materials for exhibition & for the subsequent creation of homemade perfumes (including pine, rose, mint, and gooseberry essential oils to name a few).

20141015_112111 20141016_115809
FEEL: We gathered natural objects for exhibition & from which they later made rub drawings.

The happiest accident that came from these activities were the impromptu plant designs that each student thoughtfully and artfully arranged on their desks to allow their materials to dry overnight.20141016_102534

Next, we explored perhaps their favorite sense, by making experimental cream cheese dips in each of the four major TASTE categories: Sweet, Spicy, Sour, & Savory.  Through trial and error, student groups created several original recipes, and then voted on the best in each four categories, to be served during their final Wonder Room exhibit.  The inventive winning combos were (Drumroll Please):

Sweet: Honey, Chocolate, Chipotle
Spicy: Chipotle, Green Onion, Sweet Chili
Sour: Lemon, Onion, Cranberry
Savory: Salt, Lemon, Sweet Chili

For the SIGHT room, in addition to exhibiting some of the natural materials that students collected outdoors, as well as photos that they took on their walks, they were also invited to bring Objects of Curiosities from home (heirlooms, relics, talisman, etc.) about which they engaged in a storytelling activity.

Only with students from a school located in such a special place, might we have been lucky enough to encounter a bald eagle just 30 feet from our path.

Lastly, after some in-class deep listening activities, we took a final walk to capture the music of their environment, using the audio/video recorders on their iPads.  These excerpts were then mixed together into the Terra Nova Symphony, complete with seagulls, airplanes, squeaky swings and more, to appropriately represent the Richmond SOUNDscape.



Squeaky Swing

For the collective curation and design of their final Wonder Room exhibit, teams were organized by a super sensory super hero power that they were asked to choose.  Then, these teams respectively built whatever room related to their favorite SENSE.  Each room was also designated a mascot, aligned with the animal that shared their sensory super power (IE. Bear – Smell; Catfish – Touch; Butterfly – Taste; Eagle – See; Bat – Hear), and a corresponding color (IE. Green – Smell; Purple – Touch; Red – Taste; Blue – See; Yellow – Hear).  And Voila: The James Thompson Wonder Room came into being!

20141106_120454 20141106_120658
20141106_120615 20141106_120624 20141106_120544

For this final show, Ms. McKaskill and Mr. Dimmick’s Division 2 & 3 students guided nearly 100 visitors through their elaborate Wonder Room, allowing each of them to have their own five senses heightened too.
20141106_131422  20141106_131110 20141106_131801 20141106_131124 20141106_13165320141106_131413

Then, to summarize these rich engagements, the students were asked to write haikus reflecting on their sensory heightening experiences.   The profound sentiments that resulted certainly affirmed my belief in the power of the arts to awaken us fully into the present moment.

20141106_110052 20141106_110107