Lovingly curated by doting parents, elementary school art projects have a traditionally short exhibition life, suspended with ‘fridge magnets until the next masterpiece appears. But students from Forsyth School can return someday with their own children to see Confluence, the mosaic panels they created under the guidance of artist-in-residence Catharine Magel. The project has been permanently installed above the second-story windows at the school’s art center.
The Nicholas Aaron Aitken Artist-in-Residence Program was established by Tamara and Bart Aitken in memory of their son, Nicholas (Forsyth class of ’04) who passed away in 2009 at the age of 18. Forsyth art specialist and teacher Ellen DeFilippo, who’s been with the school for 15 years, remembers Nicholas well. “He was my student from the time he arrived at Forsyth until he graduated. He was a wonderful artist, just a really creative kid. His parents have exhibited such amazing strength and generosity—it’s remarkable.”
It’s unusual for an elementary school to offer a program like this, DeFilippo explains. “I’ve never heard of it at this level, and it’s a dream come true! Our students experience things I believe are so important, like teamwork, a sense of community and a collective effort. It exposes them to an artist’s big ideas, and they have a chance to see the artist work on a project from conception to completion. And then to be able to participate and actually have their hands on it—it’s just an incredible experience!”
The program, designed for the school’s fifth graders, was created with input from a committee of teachers and parents, including Forsyth parent Paul Ha, director of the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. “Last year, we did include some sixth graders because the project was so enormous,” DeFilippo explains. “And this year, there are third-grade students participating because it ties into their geography curriculum.”
This year’s artist-in-residence is Ron Fondaw, professor of sculpture at the Sam Fox School of Visual Design at Washington University. “It’s a large-scale adobe sculpture inspired by Maya architecture,” DeFilippo says. “Ron and I made the armature for the sculpture and the students are learning how to make and apply the adobe. It’s so interesting to hear them chatting while they work: I love adobe! This is how people make their houses all over the world! It’s great to see the lights going on as they make the connection to the culture they are studying.”
DeFilippo enjoys the freedom of expression children exhibit in art class. “What’s really cool about working with kids is their ability to live in the moment and enjoy the process of making art,” she explains.
Like the artist-in-residence program honoring Nicholas Aitken, the school’s new mosaic is getting rave reviews from parents, teachers and alumni. But perhaps the best testimonial came from a young art student DeFilippo overheard while he was working enthusiastically on the adobe sculpture. “Today is the best day ever!”