Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Dodge Kids Rock Picking Rock

"Rock Pickers," Richard Olsenius for In Search of Lake Wobegon
Ever pick rock?  My husband grew up picking rock.  As a kid in central Minnesota, you could hire yourself out to pick rock for the farmer down the road.  As he tells it, the day you picked rock was usually an unusually hot day in spring.  You and the other unfortunate kids that signed on for this task put on your Dad's old too-big work gloves, trudged out to the baking spring field and arranged yourself in a sort of band, distantly shoulder to shoulder, as if you were participating in a search and rescue mission.  You all walked like this behind a tractor pulling a flatbed trailer.  You walked with your head down because your job was to look for rocks that had heaved themselves up to the surface over the winter.  These upstart rocks could damage the cultivator blades or the teeth of combines and generally get in the way, so they had to be cleared from the field.  Bigger rocks were carried on a stretcher by the older kids.  Your neck got sunburned.  Your arms and legs got scraped up.  Not really enough time to horse around with the other kids.  You got too hot, and the next day you were very sore.  Yup, central Minnesota rock picking.

Here at Dodge, preschoolers have been picking rock too, but they don't get paid for it, they don't get too hot and there is plenty of time to horse around.  We've been out scouting for sizable rocks to harvest for our on-going sculpture inquiry with local sculptor, Peter Morales (see previous post).  We have a very loose idea that it would be fun to create stone turtles across all of our classes here at the Preschool.  But to make rock turtles, we need the raw material, so we've been out and about, between snowstorms, finding rocks and hauling them back to our playground.  Teachers have tried to turn over the task of rock picking and hauling to the kids, not because we want to torture them, but because they like it, and it's good for them.

Picking and hauling rock when you weigh 30 to 50 pounds and you are three to five-years-old is very physical and very challenging work.  This type of demanding, hands-on, cooperative, kid-accomplished activity is sort of a hallmark of our work here at Dodge.  In such activities, kids have to do a lot of problem solving, and they have to do it together.  They must coordinate their efforts and actions, and stay focused in order to accomplish the task.  There is risk involved as well (they can drop the rock on a toe or wrench a limb) and failure is certainly possible (the rock can roll away, or they can get too frustrated to continue).  Of course teachers help, but only in order to sponsor action that is already being taken; if none of the kids takes action and all are passive, we do not move the task forward, we look for alternative projects.  It takes a big measure of impulse control for teachers to stand aside and let children really do this sort of work; control freaks need to step back, bite their tongues and nearly tie their own hands behind their backs.  As you might imagine, many teachers are, by nature, control freaks, so this is stuff is skill-building for us as well.  Disciplined teachers intervene only to tie ropes for rock skids, to help line up a lever or ramp, or when peril is imminent.  I confess that on one recent expedition, when kids had pulled a 100 pound rock for at least a 1/4 of a mile and it began to pour rain, we stepped in and stepped up the pulling.  But we try pretty hard not to jump in with answers and actions.  We, unlike the parents and caretakers of these students, have the luxury of time.  We can devote an entire morning to getting a 100 pound granite stone back to school.

It is interesting to watch individual kids approach this kind of work; the skills necessary comprise the fundamentals of getting along in the world and functioning successfully with a degree of autonomy-- and these kids will have the skill set to pick rock in Benton county.  As you might suspect, at this point in the school year, most kids are able to sustain attention in a task like rock-picking, and to cooperate with friends to get the job done.  Some kids need assistance with basic skills—focus and cooperation—but this is age-appropriate too.  Some kids dig right in and really take risks, putting their shoulders to the wheel as it were.  In cooperative tasks, we see that different children bring different skills to the project:  listening, problem-solving, taking the lead, following, supporting and, sometimes, dissenting or altogether ignoring.  Each kid finds a place in the task—even the dissenter is staking out her territory.  And, if a child is unable or unwilling to engage in this type of collaboration, teachers and caretakers learn more about that kid's motivations and proclivities.  

These projects are generally great barometers of development across the board.  Of course, a lot of physical development occurs each time we embark on such tasks, and, remember, physical activity builds stronger, more complicated pathways across the entire brain.  While this project at Dodge may not be as authentic as having to build your own hut, or cook your own dinner, it bring the kids a little closer to the fundamental skills most humans need to survive (after all, we think you survive better with art, and you can't make a stone sculpture without stone).  I don’t think we can do enough of this sort of stuff; kids and teachers alike learn a lot in the process.

Back at school, kids admire their finds and survey their rock stock.  We hear a vocabulary of comparisons emerging.  Language develops around a need to describe what they see.  The math skills of differentiating and categorizing come into play.  There is an opportunity and a growing desire to classify and adopt the taxonomy of geology.  Teachers bring literature into the equation and we have class discussions about the nature and history of rocks.  Big concepts are floated in these discussions:  plants and animals can turn into rocks after many years...the moon is a rock...the Earth is rock...the rock under our feet used to be at the bottom of an ocean that covered this part of the planet...gasoline was oil, oil was rocks, rocks were plants and animals ...gas can be trapped in rock...lava is liquid rock (nothing is cooler than lava!)...salt is rocks...we eat rocks!  Suddenly the world is a very compelling and amazing place, all because we found this rock and hauled it back to school.

When you are out in the field picking rock in Benton county, you might not be thinking about how compelling and amazing the world is.  You might be wishing you were back in your cool, dark bedroom, munching on Doritos, sipping Kool-Aid and listening to Pat Benatar.  But even preteen rock pickers reap the rewards of picking rock.  There's all that vitamin D exposure to consider.  And think of the oxytocin flooding the brain after the sunshine and physical exertion.  Don't underestimate the time spent in quiet, zen-like contemplation, when the mind is freed by sheer boredom and tedium.  Think of the eye-hand coordination being developed and all those pathways forging across the brain!  And then there's the ten bucks you earn at the end of the day, just enough for the new Joan Jett album, and maybe an Orange Julius at the mall...

Who doesn't love rock and roll, Joan?

For further kid reading on rocks, check out:

Everybody Needs a Rock by Byrd Baylor, pictures by Peter Parnall 
(this is wonderfully Sonoma seventies groovy)

If You Find a Rock by Peggy Christian, photographs by Barbara Hirsch Lember
(earnest and wistful, with evocative photos)

It Could Still Be a Rock by Allan Fowler
(all I can say is this book is so Allan Fowler; kids love his big "Rookie Read-About Science" books)

Usborne Spotter's Guides:  Rocks & Minerals 

Stone:  Andy Goldsworthy

Activity Ideas:
-Rock pick around town
-Look everywhere for stuff made out of stone
-Visit some nearby stone art at the Walker Sculpture Garden by these famous folks:

Martin Puryear (love his stuff)
Kinji Akagawa (my favorite piece, and he's local)
Jenny Holzer (fond memories from my art school days)

Akagawa holding model of his work

Puryear sculpture

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Big Dream: Big Art At Dodge

"Jaguar Bench" 
Mankato limestone
Western Sculpture Park, Saint Paul
Peter Morales

We are pleased to announce that Saint Paul sculptor Peter Morales has joined Dodge Nature Preschool for a mini artist-in-residence program.

Dodge Nature Preschool recently received a very generous and anonymous gift.  The bulk of the check was earmarked for our ongoing, vital mission of staff development, but a portion of the funds was available for use immediately and intended to go towards some sort of child-centered project.  Staff did a lot of brainstorming together and got in touch with all of our various pie-in-the sky dreams.  These dreams included, but were not limited to:

-playground greenhouse
-playground water feature
-playground farm animal paddock
-playground sheep
-outdoor classroom/gazebo/meeting place somewhere out there off the beaten path
-Gamelan Theatre presentation
-immersion blender
-new rugs

We could not come to agreement on any of these things, even the immersion blender.  What we could agree on was art.  We wanted some art here at Dodge, somewhere out there in the wilds.  We wanted to invite an artist to make site-specific work here, and we said, "Gee, wouldn't it be great if this were the start of something lasting and long-term?  Maybe this could mean big things for the School, and the Nature Center."  Then we imagined a whole bunch of art here at Dodge, all over the place...on the prairie, through the woods, around the orchards, in the ponds!  Dodge could join the ranks of places like the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum and Tamarack Nature Center, offering nature and art experiences simultaneously-- reflecting our land, our environment, our culture, our heritage, our history...Boy, did our dreams get big!

"Paisley Perch"
Mankato limestone
Como Park at Lexington and Jessamine, Saint Paul
Peter Morales

We've discovered that it is good to start with a big dream.  Start big, and then see what you can do to get you on the path.  We envisioned a big, bold, solid, kid-friendly sculpture that would serve as a catalyst for future art endeavors here at the Nature Center.  So we began looking at sculpture.  Franconia Sculpture Park was our starting point.  It's not to far away, and choc full of local art.  Right away we spotted some intriguing work by a guy named, Peter Morales.  Turns out Peter lives right in Saint Paul, and little did we know, his art is all over the city.  It is pretty easy to experience Peter's work in-person and we did just that.  It seemed to be just the sort of work we were looking for:  big, bold, solid, kid-friendly, zoomorphic stone sculpture.  What if we could get this guy to come build a sculpture here with Dodge kids?

Hamline Park, Saint Paul
Peter Morales
It all happened pretty fast, but here we are in the midst of an artist-in-residence experience-based program with Peter Morales.  Peter has agreed to come and share what it is to be a sculptor with our classes, and to embark on a collaboration.  To date, we've met with Peter, seen his work and shared time with him in our classes.  

Sculptor Peter Morales with "Jaguar Head"

Morales with "Hatchet Head Helmet"

Our next point of inquiry will be stone-splitting and tools.  We are determined to trek out in the field, lasso ourselves a sizable rock and drag it back here to school, where Peter will help us split and shape the stone.  We have plans to cast some creations in metal too.  This will entail making moulds of shapes and objects in preparation for casting in molten metal.  Dodge families will visit Peter's studio, and we might even get to attend a hot metal pour at a local foundry.

Morales journalling with Spruce Room kids at the Preschool

"Water of the Doodem Spirits"
1113 Franklin Avenue East, Minneapolis
granite drinking fountain
Peter Morales
So far, the children are most fascinated by what sculpting has done to Peter's hands, the sharpness of his tools and Peter's childhood in Guatemala (Peter's older brother was a spider monkey).  This is as it should be; the children gravitate to concrete experience.  And so we embrace a residency with a heavy emphasis on experience, rather than end result.  

Dodge students with wooden "Hacha" component for bronze casting
Teachers too are fascinated by the hands-on, nuts-and-bolts stuff, the "Oh, so that's how you do it!" revelations in learning about making art.  But we are also intrigued by the more esoteric things that go into creation:  where an artist grows up (in Peter's case ancient Tikal), his influences (Peter's parents were archaeologists) and his inspirations (jaguars, cajibracan and antlered beasts). 

Making an impression in clay with "Hacha" component
"Hacha" impression

Esoteric ideas are the things that children take for granted, the things that just are, and that too is as it should be.  Kids are alive to the whole world, closer to it in its complexity than adults.  Kids seem to seek a physical understanding first, through nose-to-nose familiarity, rather than interpreting stuff at arms' length, after reflection as adults do.  That's how art works on so many different levels, why it's so good for all of us.  Something for everyone, from the purely visceral to the totally cerebral, art keeps connecting us to who we are here on earth.

"La Santa Hacha"
cast bronze kinetic sculpture (the top hatchet or "hacha" moves!)
Peter Morales
"Mother Baby Bench"
Mankato limestone, cast iron and forged steel
Mother Baby Center Children's Hospital, Minneapolis
Peter Morales
And if we can raise a few more dollars, we are bound and determined not only to have this terrific learning experience with Peter Morales continue, but also to place a BIG, BOLD, SOLID, STONE Morales sculpture right here at Dodge-- something for the community at large, something that will continue to serve as a catalyst for learning right on through the ages.  Just imagine...a giant turtle in the Farm Pond, a big unexpected antler in the Stick Forts Woods, a stone coyote howling in the Prairie, a fish in the Bee Creek, an owl in the Piney Forest...Dodge kids, Garlough kids, Heritage kids, school kids across the metro and wandering grown-ups can stumble upon one more fantastic surprise right here at Dodge.

"Book Benches"
Indiana limestone
Children's Library Garden at Wayzata Public Library
Peter Morales

If you'd like to help us pursue the big dream of big art at Dodge, 
please contact me at:  mbrand@dodgenaturecenter.org