Art meets heritage in skipjack project

Replicas of the Chesapeake craft are decorated by students and put on display


During a visit to New Orleans in 2004, Linda Skreptack saw a public art display of fish exhibited throughout the city.

When she returned home, Skreptack, an associate development officer for Anne Arundel County public schools, suggested that the school system do a similar project that would spotlight student work.

Skreptack has since retired, but the schools' art and development offices joined forces and received permission to implement Sailing into the Arts, a project through which students design and paint skipjacks for public display.

Boat builder Cotton Thomas was commissioned to create the fiberglass pieces, and the development office worked to find sponsors for 16 skipjacks.

When the school system launched the program, 12 high schools and four special education schools signed up to participate.

Students began work in January and finished by April 1, working primarily during lunch periods and after school. The skipjacks are displayed throughout the county at 13 sites (some sites have two boats on display).

Students were first asked to create a design for both the front and the back of a skipjack.

"We didn't dictate the themes," said Suzanne Owens, coordinator of art for the school system.

Each participating school submitted a design plan to paint one of the 5-foot-tall replicas of skipjacks - at a cost of $2,500 each - with acrylic paints.

The designs that were approved included subjects such as fish, eagles, Chesapeake Bay preservation, underwater keyboards, a sunset, a dark night, a woman's face, a large eye, teddy bears and stars.

"This project is entirely the creation of the students and their teachers, and we're showcasing it by having it displayed for the public," said Owens. "The students can put the project on their resumes."

For some students, being able to participate was more than enough, as was the case with Central Special School in Edgewater. When art teacher Marlo Fellner heard about the program she wanted her students to be able to participate, but she knew the design would have to be simple.

"The kids here are severely handicapped in some way," said Fellner. "Some are mentally retarded, deaf, blind, or both, and many are in wheelchairs. But I didn't want anyone to be exempt from participating."

Fellner finally settled on a quilt design. Forty-one of her middle- and high-school students participated. To ensure it went smoothly, Fellner created a simple painting technique for her students.

She collected small, round mini M&M containers, then she cut circles out of sponges and glued them to the bottom of the containers.

She demonstrated the process, and in no time her students had mastered it.

"The kids just dabbed the paint onto their patch on the quilt," said Fellner. "The paint had a texture to it so even the blind students could paint patches and feel it when it was done."

To make sure they stayed within their patch on the quilt, Fellner placed black tape in squares around the skipjack. Then each student painted within the taped lines.

"They were fail-proof squares," said Fellner. "When I pulled off the tape there was a perfectly painted square."

Fellner said she tried to devise a method of painting that the students could learn through repetition, and it worked.

When the students returned to using brushes in the classroom, they mimicked what they learned while painting the skipjacks.

"They were sponging paint on with paintbrushes," said Fellner. "It was such a wonderful experience for them. They were part of something that everyone else was doing."

Students at Arundel High School chose a different route. No two students did the same thing. Their design had a preservation theme and included an old net, oyster shells, photographs and old newspaper stories.

"Going into this project, they didn't even know what a skipjack was, but when they found out they ran with the preservation idea," said their art teacher, Deborah Ahalt.

The seven Arundel High students searched through back issues of newspapers for articles about bay preservation and went to the bay to take pictures of the landscape as well as a skipjack. They also brought back oyster shells.

"They painted the frames around the photographs and the silhouettes on the skipjack," but the photos and news articles were glued onto it, as were the shells," said Ahalt. "When they had the launching, ours was very different than the other ones. I was so proud of what they did."

In addition to the painting project, all Anne Arundel County students in kindergarten through 12th grade can enter a contest to win a grand prize - a digital camera or a basket of art supplies.

To enter, a student must visit all 13 sites and gather the skipjack facts located on the plaque on each boat.

Then they can select one of the following activities: write a reflection paper on what they learned of no more than one typed page, create a work of art no larger than 8.5 inches or compose an original song or poem.

All entries must be received by Aug. 31.

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