Mount Abe kids make land art

ONE OF 20 recently installed, student-made artworks on the Bristol Trail Network.

This project has tapped into that feeling of being a small child again and building forts in the woods.
— Nan Guilmette

BRISTOL — Last week, on a segment of the Bristol Trail Network that starts behind the Firehouse, Mount Abraham Union Middle School seventh-graders Isabella Shackett and Nathan Lester made a work of art from vines, twigs, bark and leaves, then suspended it from a trio of young trees.
Teaching artist Claire Tebbs watched their work develop.
“What’s remarkable about this installation is that they had completely different visions for it but were at peace with the same work,” Tebbs said.
Lester calls the work “Nature’s Pizza,” alluding to its triangular shape and drawing parallels between the “toppings” on a pizza slice and the “toppings” that can be found in the natural world.
Shackett calls the work “A Home.”
“I am making a home with leaves, sticks and more stuff,” she wrote in her artist’s statement. “It is going to be big but small, and I am making a roof too.”
Tebbs noted that despite their differing interpretations, the pair worked away happily on their project.
“Even in this pandemic world, these kids are ready and eager to connect and apt to make connections,” Tebbs said.
Shackett and Lester’s project was one of 20 recently installed by student teams on the Bristol Trail Network (BTN), as part of a land-art unit organized by Mount Abe’s Team Apex teachers, Nan Guilmette, Jordan Lea and Jocelyn Foran.
This year’s project is a variation of previous units that were designed to build connections between students and the community, Guilmette explained. Because of the pandemic, they took it outside.
For this year’s seventh-graders, who have just transitioned to Mount Abe from their respective elementary schools but are only getting to spend a couple of days per week getting to know their new school, it felt especially relevant to explore a sense of place, belonging and connectedness, she said.
The school teamed up with Tebbs, who lives in Middlebury and works as a community planner and teaching artist, through the Community Engagement Lab, a Montpelier nonprofit dedicated to bringing people of all ages together in projects that activate their creativity to imagine and build more thriving communities.
Because the Mount Abe building is closed to visitors during the pandemic, Tebbs sat outside in the school’s “plaza” with her laptop in her lap and gave the students a Zoom presentation on land art and art-based place making, she explained.
Thinking that the BTN would make an ideal spot to create land art, the teachers also reached out to Porter Knight, who oversees the trail.
“I was super-enthusiastic,” Knight said. “Since the earliest meetings of the BTN, we’ve talked about having ‘history on the trail,’ ‘nature on the trail’ and ‘art on the trail.’”
The Mount Abe installations will mark the inaugural year of “Art on the Trail,” Knight has decided, and plans are already in the works for a community photography project next year.
Knight also Zoomed with the kids, providing some history and detail about the BTN.
When students and educators got the go-ahead to be on the trail together, everyone masked-up. 
Knight organized service projects for the kids — picking up trash, spreading woodchips — and Tebbs spent time with each team, which consisted of two or three students, to brainstorm project ideas.
“Land art is often ephemeral,” Tebbs said, subject to the whims of wind and rain. “We talked about that aspect and about making the art as resilient as possible.”

When it came time to bring their creative ideas to life, the students were allowed to pick their own spots along the trail.
Harper Young, Clayton Markwell and JaeQuin Tomasi raked out a spot on the High School Loop and built “Rocky Spiral” on the bare earth. The stones, some of which are painted white, grow larger in size the farther they get from the center of the spiral.
At the last minute the trio decided to connect a second spiral to the work. As a result the work feels continuous and self-contained at the same time.
A few yards away, Dmitri Rodrigue enlisted this reporter’s help to saw through a dead portion of an oak tree — which would constitute the final rung of “Ladder of the Outdoors,” a work he designed and built with Jayden Pudvah and Douglas Domingue.
“When someone looks at my art I want them to think ‘Should I take care of nature??? If so how do I do it? When should I start???” Rodrigue wrote in his artist’s statement. “Doing it as a team is the best of the best!!!”
Standing in front of the finished product, Rodrigue looked proud but spoke humbly.
“If this (artwork) is cool, then give thanks to the team,” he said Friday. “Because all I did was chop the wood.”
The outdoor exhibition is open from Oct. 11 to 25 and is sure to delight trail walkers and art lovers alike, but the public is strongly encouraged to visit as soon as possible — before one of Vermont’s typical October storms rolls through and dismantles everything.
“The students really rose to the occasion, every single group,” Tebbs said. “They ‘rocked it,’ to use a cheesy land-art joke.”
As they finished their installations on Friday, Guilmette was reminded of how much happiness the creative process brings.
“I think this project has tapped into that feeling of being a small child again and building forts in the woods,” she said. “And building community is so much more successful when you work together to create something new.”
But Guilmette and her colleagues could not have undertaken the project without support from the local and state arts communities, she said.
In addition to a funding from the Vermont Arts Council, the land art project received a community grant from Five-Town Friends of the Arts.
In addition, Art on Main, which is a part of Five-Town Friends, arranged for a photographer to document the students’ work and will host an exhibition of those photographs in the coming weeks.
Photos of the work will also be hung at Bristol Cliffs Cafe.
In the meantime, artist statements and photos of the works can be found on the school website:
Five-Town Friends of the Arts Co-President Linda Cormany went to see the trail exhibition with her husband Bill a few days ago, and shared her thoughts about it in an email to Knight:
“Amazing and truly a gift to our community, the students and the land. It cultivates the caring for our land, the importance of collaboration and appreciation of the beauty of where we live.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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