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By Rosie Powers
Bottle caps and the environment may seem incompatible. But for a group of students from Oak Park's Longfellow Elementary School, these little pieces of metal served as the building blocks of their winning project in Downtown Oak Park's first Eco-Art Exhibit, a contest that encourages environmentally-conscious thinking through art.
"We live in a community that is very conscious about the issues threatening our environment, so we thought this would be something the whole community would embrace and appreciate," said Shanon Williams, marketing director for Downtown Oak Park (DTOP).
After over 200 votes were counted, Longfellow students were declared the winner for their "Bottle Cap Sea Turtle" project, a turtle made entirely out of bottle caps. Their winning entry was displayed in A Matter of Style's storefront windows on the 100 block of North Marion Street.
"The timing of the contest worked out really well with another project I had been planning with the kids: creating plastic bottle cap mosaics to decorate our newly designed field and play space," said Jennifer Raia, an art teacher at Longfellow. "We have been collecting plastic bottle caps all year for the project and our sea turtle piece became our 'prototype' for the larger scale project."
Each school was allowed to submit up to two pieces made with at least 80 percent recycled materials, reflecting the theme, "Save the Planet." Submissions were displayed in business windows from April 1-21. Students from Irving Elementary School came in second place with their project "What a Wonderful World It Could be."
Raia said DTOP provided a list of topics related to the environment to use as a theme for the artwork, which inspired her students to use the sea turtle as a symbol of environmental awareness.
"A group of fifth-graders chose to focus on water pollution and came up with the idea of using a sea turtle to represent the importance of keeping our oceans clean," Raia said. "The wave on the turtle's back symbolizes clean, fresh water."
Raia said many Longfellow families helped students collect and donate bottle caps.
"Whenever students were finished with the artwork in class, they sorted and organized caps by size and color," Raia said. "A fifth-grade class worked together to conceptualize and design the sea turtle, but it was a small group of fourth-grade students who did the placement of bottle caps and final gluing."
Williams said the Eco-Art Exhibit will continue as an annual tradition, though she already has some changes in mind.
"Next year I will start the process earlier to get more schools on board; eventually I would like to see all the elementary schools, private schools and Montessoris involved," she said. "Also expanding the displays of the pieces in businesses in greater downtown as well as the Hemingway and Pleasant Districts."
Raia said she enjoyed the project not only because of its artistic value, but for its importance in teaching students the importance of environmental sustainability.
"The Eco-Art Exhibit creates the challenge of getting kids to think differently about the creative process and what it means to make art," Raia said. "It teaches them that amazing art can be made from everyday materials that you would normally toss into the recycling bin."