Art of memorable meetings

Exhibit: Students depict their interpretations of the `first encounters' of famous personalities.

March 14, 2002|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Through the artwork of Howard County students, the first meeting between famous people such as Fred Astaire and Count Basie is depicted in papier-mache figures, while puppets of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis stand together for the first time on a stage in front of an adoring audience.

Nearly 400 pieces of such artwork from county kindergartners to high school seniors will be displayed at Howard County Center for the Arts in First Encounters: Students' Responses to Memorable Meetings.

Opening tomorrow, the exhibit was inspired by First Encounters: A Book of Memorable Meetings by Nancy Caldwell Sorel and illustrated by her husband, Edward Sorel, and features 65 meetings between famous people.

Edward Sorel - a New York caricaturist and illustrator whose work has appeared in a number of books and periodicals, including The New Yorker, The Nation, The New York Times, Atlantic Monthly and Esquire - will talk and sign copies of their book at the opening.

An exhibit of Sorel's solo work also accompanies the students' show in another gallery at the center.

To create the exhibit, Howard art teachers were given copies of the Sorels' book and instructed to have their students interpret the work.

The students' artworks range from collages and dioramas to black-and-white pictures of people wearing paper bags with faces painted on them.

First, read about meetings

Students read the stories of the meetings in the book and then further researched to ensure their artwork was historically accurate, focusing on the subjects' relationship and details such as appropriate dress for the time period.

"We needed to help them investigate who these people were and what their relationship was," said Heidi White, an art teacher at Hammond Elementary School. "It was a way for them to learn about real people, and learn about it within the art context."

Nikki Rice, a sophomore at Centennial High School, and two classmates depicted the first meeting between Astaire and Basie during the summer of 1960, when they discussed a dance to "Sweet Georgia Brown" for an Astaire television special.

The accounts between the two performers differ, according to the Sorels' book.

Basie said he flew to California and immediately gave a tape of the song to Astaire, who started dancing.

But Astaire maintained that Basie didn't show up until the next day, saying Basie had lost $500 at a racetrack and had asked Astaire to lend him the money, which he did.

Rice and her partners chose to interpret the meeting based purely on aesthetic reasons - they were attracted to Sorel's drawing, showing the two men dancing arm in arm.

"It's not every day you come across a book with a picture of two guys dancing," said Rice of Ellicott City. She decided: "That's entertaining. OK, I'll do that one."

Three-dimensional vignette

They created a three-dimensional vignette of the meeting, creating the figures' heads out of papier-mache and clothing them with black suits made of felt.

They positioned Astaire tap-dancing with money in his hand and Basie playing a piano, set against the background of a horse race.

"We tried not to do exactly what the artist had done in the book," said Christina Daly, 15, of Ellicott City, who worked on the project with Rice and Heather Simpson, 16. "We tried to incorporate what they were famous for and what the story was all about in a different way."

Children in Andrew Katz's art class at Bonnie Branch Middle School retold the story of the first meeting between Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini by drawing on sides of model train cars made of paper - providing a blank canvas - that were linked together on a train track.

"When [the train cars] are all sort of strung together, the whole process of one person meeting another person meeting another person is right there in front of you," Katz said.

The exhibit is part of the celebration of Youth Art Month, an annual nationwide observance emphasizing the importance of art education and encouraging public support for art programs in schools.

As part of the observance, some county students' artwork is on exhibit at the central and east Columbia public library branches. Artwork by juniors and seniors throughout the school system also will be displayed at the Department of Education Gallery, with a reception April 12.

Barry Shauck, Howard County public schools instructional facilitator for the visual arts, said the Sorels' book offered a creative assignment for students, allowing them to use a wide range of art media and teaching them that art uses from work and dialogue.

"It's a very difficult problem to respond to because it takes a lot of thought to see how things could be put together to tell a story," Shauck said.

Aside from the artwork, Nikki Rice said she acquired a greater appreciation for the work of Astaire and Basie.

"Before this, I had never seen a movie of Fred Astaire's, never heard Count Basie's music," she said. "But I ended up doing both."

First Encounters runs through April 21 at Howard County Center for the Arts, 8510 High Ridge Road, Ellicott City. The opening reception begins at 5 p.m. tomorrow. Edward Sorel will speak at 6 p.m. Information: 410-313-2787.

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