As Paul Whalen, 23, drives down Cuyler Avenue in Oak Park past Beye Elementary School and sees the iconic baby bird sculpture permanently perched at the entryway of his alma mater, some of the former second grader’s old memories return.
“Undoubtedly, my strongest memory is surrounding this sculpture with everyone reaching and grabbing to make their mark and impact on it. It was a round object, and it didn’t look like a bird until the finer things were done,” Whalen laughs, adding that “as a second grader it did give me that perception of real art that I could not have gotten from many other things.”
Sixteen years ago, Margot McMahon was among the first group of Art Start visiting sculptors, painters, dancers, musicians and storytellers to collaborate with teachers in District 97 classrooms for four to six weeks at a time.
In the Spring of 2000, Whalen was one of the 24 eager minds and hands in teacher Mary Jo Hoogstra’s class, following the directions of professional sculptor and Art Start visiting artist, Oak Parker McMahon, who attended Yale University to study sculpture and teach at the graduate level. She mentored the young students as they molded the artful “Hope” sculpture. It was part of the Oak Park Education Foundation’s Art Start enrichment program for kindergarten through the second grade classrooms in District 97. The project was a collective effort that started with a wire skeleton, and as the group added clay, became “the spirit of Beye School as it entered a new Millennium,” Hoogstra told Wednesday Journal in 2000.
Helping ideas take flight
“Hope” was born out of a lively brainstorming session among the second graders where many ideas were generated.
“As a professional artist, I had to say to the kids ‘how do we put this all together?'” says McMahon. “It’s an owl, it’s a cardinal, it’s what’s ahead. In this case the baby bird is reaching for the worm, which is what educationis. Andputtingitatthefrontdoor,it’ssaying to the students, come in here and reach for your worm,” says McMahon, who was teaching classes at the Art Institute of Chicago at the time. “So, I taught the second graders, age appropriately, exactly what I was teaching the college students. I made it a little more hands on, a little more with found objects that you understand; sphere, cone and cube.”
Carrie Kalina, Paul Whalen’s mom and Art Start parent volunteer, recalls of the project, “I was so impressed with how involved the kids were. They just wanted to see how other artists had done it, in order to get a sense of what they wanted to do.” She adds, “I think being involved in these Art Start programs broadened both of my sons’ ability to understand the process of being an artist. And as a volunteer, it was always just so much fun.”
More Art Starts at Beye
About three years later, McMahon teamed with another second-grade Art Start classroom at Beye, this time leading the creation of “Peace,” a bird sculpture that hangs in the lunchroom.
“The second graders got box loads of violent toys. I brought in a welded bird in flight that had a screen on it, and the kids brought their toys in and we placed them and wound them onto the screen. So we have taken the violent toys from the students and strung it up in a symbol of peace,” says McMahon.
“Wonder,” a whimsical mosaic sculpture that is permanently installed on the school’s lawn, came next. It was connected to a curricular unit relating to Dr. Seuss.
“Because it is created with the shapes of animals, and everyone had a different definition, we called this sculpture ‘Wonder,'” McMahon says. “I have heard [it called a] dinosaur, gazelle, dolphin…it’s definitely definable as a living creature and yet you don’t know exactly what it is. Is it a sea animal or is it a land animal? We put it in concrete to make it permanent. Three years later the same class in the fifth grade said they wanted to mosaic it.”
Reflecting on OPEF’s 25-year history, Beye School Principal Jonathan Ellwanger, says, “Asking someone who is passionate and skilled to share that passion and skills with kids so they can become co-creators, that’s the best part of what we do in education. Margot involved them in the brainstorming and the hands-on creation, giving them a window into what it really means to be an artist.”
Whalen, now a working jazz pianist, says that it was in the second grade when art started to be real for him.
“Margot brought in the base, or start of the sculpture, and then she taught us that this is how we construct it. She then said go at it, and literally two dozen kids put their hands on this thing, and were brushing it,” the 2009 Oak Park River Forest High School grad recalls. “You can still see that image in the art, because the surface is not smooth. It has a real human quality about it, and you can tell that 24 kids were putting their hands all over it, making that sculpture their own.”