Sarah Ann Tocci and Fisher Hays (F. Amanda Tugade/Staff Reporter)

If you look closely at Sarah Ann Tocci’s drawing – which hangs up high near the center of a wall at the Oak Park Public Library – you may just find a surprise: A kitten’s face hidden among chalk strokes of soft pastels and sharp black shapes. 

That’s because Tocci, a second grader at Longfellow Elementary School, 715 Highland, loves cats. To be exact, she adores her three cats, Oreo, Willow and Thor, and tries to incorporate them in all her artwork, including her latest piece in the Oak Park School District 97 art exhibit. 

 “I sometimes try to draw them. They’re really cute,” Tocci said, as she stood in front of a library wall featuring dozens of pieces of artwork from District 97 students, pointing to her own. Sporting a white dress patterned with rainbow unicorn cats and a cat ear headband, she affirmed, “I love drawing my kitties in my drawings.” 

Throughout the month of March, in tandem with Youth Art Month, the library is showing nearly 100 pieces of artwork from D97’s elementary and middle school students. Their drawings, paintings and mixed-media pieces are currently on display on the first floor of the main library, 834 Lake St. 

Jennifer Raia, an art teacher at Longfellow and chair of the art department for the district’s elementary schools, said the district has partnered with the library in the past to host art shows. District 97 has also teamed up with Oak Park and River Forest High School or used its school libraries to showcase art exhibits, but those events have been canceled and spaces declared unavailable for use because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Raia and other art teachers such as Michaela Ruff and Phillip Swistowicz told Wednesday Journal that they worked throughout the pandemic to bring art to their students, especially during the first COVID wave when schools shifted to remote learning. Ruff, who teaches at Hatch Elementary School, 1000 N. Ridgeland Ave., recalled how she and her colleagues sent their students kits complete with basic art supplies such as a watercolor paint set, markers and sketchbooks and tailoring their projects based on those materials. Swistowicz, who works at Percy Julian Middle School, 416 Ridgeland Ave., and is the chair of District 97’s middle school art department, said he had to be creative with his lesson plans and at one point had students use household items to make art tools. 

But that all changed this year when schools fully reopened, Ruff and Swistowicz said. 

“I think, like week one, I took out the paints and the pastels and just really kind of went extra crazy with materials we could use,” said Ruff, who works with students from kindergarten to fifth grade. “I’m wrapping up clay right now, and it was really bizarre to me that even our second graders, this was their first experience ever using clay.” 

Swistowicz echoed Ruff and added “it has been awesome” to have students back in the classroom and have the ability to teach a more “traditional curriculum.” Swistowicz, whose art classes have a focus on woodworking, said because COVID-19 guidelines have shifted, his students are now able to share, trade and use different tools while learning about 3D designs. 

Raia, Ruff and Swistowicz told the Journal that seeing their students get excited about the art materials, the project, use their hands and learn about the process of creation, that’s what teaching is all about. 

“For this art show,” Ruff said, “I didn’t even realize how impactful it was going to be on me and the kids when we were putting this stuff together. Seeing all of the art hung at the library was so beautiful. Even the library staff were coming, and they were just so excited to see the community back, like this vibrant art back in their space, and it was so special.” 

That rang true for District 97 students Fisher Hays and Sophia Brody, whose pieces were also in the art exhibit. Hays’ painting centers on a simple, colorful, dotted swirl and was inspired by Alma Thomas, a Black artist from the 20th century whose work focused primarily on color theory and light and dark abstraction. Brody’s piece, however, was a bold graphic print with blocks of color made out of tissue paper. 

Hays, a friend and classmate of Tocci’s, and Brody, a fourth grader who also attends Longfellow, said this was the first time their artwork has been put on display for all to see. 

When asked how they feel, they kept their answers simple. 

“Kind of proud,” said Hays, a second grader. 

Brody said, “It feels like I did something very cool.” 

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