Percy Julian students cuddle up to art project

Nine soft sculptures soften school's atrium

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By TERRY DEAN

Visitors entering Percy Julian Middle School may feel the need to do a double when walking through the school's atrium.

At first glance, those sizable, new pillowy-like objects hanging from the 4-story atrium may look like a bunch of stuffed animal creatures from a Nickelodeon cartoon. The nine objects are actually soft sculptures made by Julian students. SpongeBob is nowhere to be found, however.

On the Tuesday before Winter Break, Julian honored 160 of its 7th grade students who took part in the unique art project this fall. And as an extra plus, Build a Bear Workshop donated 160 bears to each of the 7th grade artists. Julian is at 416 S. Ridgeland Ave.

The elaborate pieces, though, are as much about the mind as the craft. The project is inspired by the theory of "Multiple Intelligences," a concept developed in the early 1980s by psychologist and Harvard professor Howard Gardner.

Humans, according to the theory, have various intelligences and abilities. 'Kinesthetic' or 'bodily,' can be seen in gifted athletes. 'Musical' can be seen in singers and musicians. 'Visual' or 'spatial' in architects. Gardner came up with nine such "intelligences."

The Julian students used each of Gardner's concepts for their individual sculptures.

"They picked which intelligence they thought they were most interested in, then they created a symbol to express that interest," said Margot McMahon, a Brooks parent and sculptor, who came up with the "Cuddling Intelligence" art project based on Gardner's theory.

McMahon, a renowned sculptor, has work on display in St. Patrick's Church and DePaul University. The "cuddling" part of the project involved the use soft materials for each piece. The idea, McMahon said, is to connect what the kids' interests are now with where they see themselves as adults.

"We're trying to help them sort through, 'What am I good at? What is it that I need to start working for?'" said McMahon, a parent of Julian and Beye students. "That's what the middle schools are all about, going back and forth between being a child and an adult."

Fur, vinyl, cotton stuffing, fabric paint, and even a swimming tube, were used in the various sculptures. The individual pieces are about 4 feet tall. The sculptures include a rose; each pedal made out of a satin material and glued together around a wire frame. And a human figure resembling an adolescent child, made from a cutout figure attached to a wire frame with a furry purple material sewn onto it.

The rose represents linguistics or communication. The human figure represents kinesthetic abilities.

Julian 7th grader Curtis Briscoe worked on a piece based on the 'musical' intelligence concept ?#34;made out of a long white furry material with black vinyl patches stitched to it to resemble piano keys.

"I did the sewing on the white one and putting on the buttons," said the 13-year-old.

"I thought it was a great exposure for the kids to put the intellect with the craft," said his mother Deirdre Hooker, who saw Curtis' interest peak from the project.

"Usually he doesn't come home and talk about what he did. Every time he had this class he came home to tell me how the piano piece was going," Hooker said.

The most elaborate piece was the rose, said McMahon. It took a month to complete.

The students made over 100 individual pedals.

The project was sponsored in part by Art Start, a program of the Oak Park Education Foundation. Art Start funds projects throughout the school year in all 10 District 97 schools. Art Start has 27 local artists in the schools every year. Projects are usually geared toward kindergarteners and first and second graders. Special projects, such as "Cuddling Intelligence," are geared toward the middle schools. This is the first time soft sculptures have been used.

Backers of the "Multiple Intelligences" theory believe it helps students tap into their own skills, which in turn can help them in school.

"The kids who are struggling in, let's say in writing and math; those kids are the ones who may be able to express themselves in dance or music," said Art Start Coordinator Deb Abrahamson.

It was McMahon's idea to have Build a Bear as sponsor.

"They couldn't give us money but could give us teddy bears," she said. "There were a lot of pricked fingers, which is why I was glad they are getting a treat."

CONTACT tdean@wjinc.com

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