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Aurora School crafts folk art, curates Shelburne Museum exhibit

SHELBURNE/MIDDLEBURY — While it may be a school project, 12-year-old Kenneth Barkdoll makes the rules very clear:
“It’s a museum exhibit,” he said. “You’re not supposed to touch anything.”
Barkdoll is one of the curators of a new folk art exhibit at the Shelburne Museum and the sixth-grader at the Aurora School in Middlebury is quick to give a firm admonishment to anyone who gets too close to his hooked rug, a panorama of him canoeing with his father.
That hooked rug is part of a yearlong theme at the Aurora School examining early American history and American folk art, specifically the hatboxes, quilts, weathervanes, hooked rugs and wooden decoys of the era.
The projects began in October, when students visited the Shelburne Museum and observed collections of artifacts from the 19th and 20th centuries. Each student selected one of the pieces on which to focus more closely, learning more about the form and function of each piece. The pieces were then presented with their descriptions in an exhibit that opened at the Shelburne last Thursday, May 8.
Susan Vigne, director and principal of the Aurora School, said one of the objectives of the project was to learn the difference between fine art and folk art.
“Folk art is something that always started with a function,” she said. “Weathervanes were used to tell which direction the wind was coming from. Now they still do that but they’re great to look at.”
Besides function and aesthetic value, Vigne said the pieces reflect periods of American history.
“It goes well beyond just making the art,” she said. “They’ve been looking at what folk art is and how the different kinds of pieces reflect life in different regions of America.”
The students titled their resulting exhibit, “Learning Heritage by Hand.” They wrote descriptions and did research on the pieces before deciding on a piece they wanted to recreate on their own. 
“They took it very seriously,” Vigne said of the students’ participation in the project. In the first stages of the project, students spent hours learning about each item.
“At that time they knew they were going to be doing a project of their own,” she continued. “They were highly motivated.”
In the next phase of their projects, students worked with local artists. Students who elected to hook their own rugs visited rugmaker Amy Oxford’s studio in Cornwall, while students making decoys worked with Gary Starr at his workshop in Weybridge, who helped rough-cut their models from basswood.
Theo Wells-Spackman, 11, worked on a decoy of an American avocet, a shorebird found near marshes and beaches in the Midwest and on the Pacific coast.
“I looked at pictures online and it was the most graceful bird I had ever seen,” he said. “I just loved the shape of the bird. Its beak was half the reason I chose it.”     
Ten-year-old Camilla VanOrder-Gonzalez said she enjoyed making her hooked rug so much that she’s planning on making more and maybe trying her hand at quilting.
Sarah Reiderer and Sabina Ward, ages 10 and 11 respectively, worked on hatboxes. For them, they said the most satisfying part was planning their project and then having a finished product that they could use.
“It was very satisfying,” Ward said.
Seven rugs, eight quilts, four decoys, four hatboxes and four weathervanes later, students had an entire installation that will be on display for the rest of the month.
In addition to learning about, designing and constructing their own pieces, fifth- and sixth-grade students also worked with Karen Petersen, Education Department Director at the Shelburne, as well as installation staff to learn about composition, contrast and color when arranging an installation, which they completed together.
“They came as a team of curators,” Petersen said. “They knew in many ways what they wanted to accomplish and they laid it out, wrote the labels and installed it — with a little bit of help, of course.”
Petersen said she hoped their experience would make them future museum enthusiasts.
“This is going to make kids look at museums in a completely different way and see beauty in everyday objects,” she said.
Evan Johnson can be reached at [email protected].

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