New sculpture serves as kids’ plaything at Parent/Child Center

MIDDLEBURY — Ylexeus Palacio can often be seen tenderly cuddling her adorable, 19-month-old son Caesar at the Addison County Parent/Child Center (PCC), a renowned Middlebury nonprofit that helps young families become happy, healthy and self-sufficient.
But only a few months ago, Palacio was tensely gripping a white-hot plasma torch to slice through a massive steel drum, as part of a group effort to build a new play-sculpture that will regale Caesar and future generations of children who participate in PCC programs.
The new structure — made possible through a Vermont Community Foundation grant, the guidance of Panton artist-welder Eben Markowski and the collective efforts of PCC staff and parents — is now in place after a transformative, five-month creative process.
The teen artists, PCC staff and Markowski took some time on Monday to admire their work proudly displayed in front of the center headquarters at 126 Monroe St.
“One of the challenges was we wanted to create something beautiful that children could play with,” said Deirdre Kelley, the PCC’s education coordinator. “It wasn’t just going to be an art piece that was going to sit at the town green; it was, ‘How do we make this so it’s both beautiful and lasting for our community, and also really incorporates early childhood philosophy.”
Mission accomplished.
It all began last year, when Kelly and a couple of center participants were enjoying the PCC playground and shared the concept of installing some artwork on the property. It prompted center staff and clients to pose the question “What is art?” and how it could be fully enjoyed by adults and the toddlers who visit daily for childcare services.
“The participants said, ‘That would be great; how do we write a grant for that?’” Kelley recalled.
The center successfully applied for $2,500 through the community foundation to create what PCC Co-Director Donna Bailey called “a usable art installation” — something that could be visually and physically appreciated.
They enlisted Markowski to help them pull off the project, which participants began to design in July.
“It wasn’t, ‘Eben, we have this idea, could you make it for us?’” Kelly said. “We were saying, ‘Participants, figure out what art is, and what does it mean for kids to be a part of that art?’”
Participants dutifully surveyed their colleagues and brainstormed many different ideas.
Bailey and Kelly were impressed with the respectful give-and-take the young artists exhibited in reaching consensus on a sculpture design.
“The process was really the gift here,” Bailey said. “What came out of it is really beautiful, too.”
With their final plan on paper, the fledgling artists were allowed to comb Markowski’s property for sculpture materials. Since he pays many of his bills as a welder and light construction worker, Markowski keeps an assortment of spare parts and skeletal remains of old metallic structures.
Participants selected a salvaged underground steel drum to serve as the centerpiece of their installation. The playful-yet-utilitarian cylindrical husk is adorned with cut-out shapes of the different celestial phases of the moon. At the base of the cylinder is a small entryway, just large enough for a toddler to walk inside to play with an interior rope toy; they can also glance out of some of the pint-sized lookout holes.
A non-functional but seemingly magical windup key rotates, by itself, at the apex of the structure. Ingenuously, the key doesn’t require a motor or human cranking. It rotates with the whimsy of wind power.
Fabrication was no small task, but the young artisans were up to the challenge. One of them, Bryan Krymlak, had previous welding experience and was instrumental in guiding his colleagues through the tricky and sometimes hair curling experience.
It took some time for participants to get comfortable wielding plasma torches, even though they were all wearing the requisite masks, gloves and other protective gear.
Participant Morgan Edgerly explained it was physically intimidating when the torch fire hit metal and threw sparks at her.
“It made you jump back and have to do it again,” Edgerly said. “The mask was too big for my head, so I had to keep pushing it on. But other than that, it was really fun.”
“These weren’t warm and cuddly tools to use,” Markowski stressed. “My compliments go out to these women for giving it a shot … and persevering through all of it. It was inspiring to watch.”
The sculpture will evolve with contributions from Mother Nature and other PCC participants and kids.
The salvaged, untreated steel will develop a rust and patina due to weather and time.
Others will be invited to add their own creative flourishes to the communal creation.
“We’re not necessarily considering this a finished product.” Markowski said.
Monday saw Caesar exploring the sculpture under the watchful eyes of his mom. He was later given a paintbrush he used to dab white paint on the exterior of what was to him a majestic plaything.
A future artist in bloom?
“I think it’s wonderful,” PCC board member Natalie Peters said while viewing the sculpture and the joy it was imparting. “It’s one more way for everyone to learn.”
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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