Artist, students collaborate on mural at Mass MoCA's Kidspace

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Photo Gallery | Sock art mural made by local students

NORTH ADAMS — What does empathy have to do with socks? The latter, by the hundreds, are being used by local fourth-graders, at the guidance of artist-in-residence Aaron Johnson, to create a collaborative mural at Mass MoCA's Kidspace.

The mural project, which will be unveiled on Saturday, Jan. 30, as part of Mass MoCA's annual "Free Day," hangs in the "Walk in My Shoes" exhibition. The show represents the first year of a four-year federally funded arts education initiative partnering northern Berkshire schools with the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, with additional support from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. This first-year exhibit features the theme of "empathy," with artwork by Jamie Diamond, Jesse Fleming, and Aaron Johnson. Forthcoming exhibits will relate to themes of optimism and courage.

"The concept of the mural incorporates ideas of collective and cooperation," said Johnson. The student mural includes a crowd of wild looking characters, some with multiple heads. Each head is a three-dimensional sock portrait created by a fourth-grader from either Brayton Elementary School in North Adams or Clarksburg Elementary School.

The process involves first painting a face on a round piece of posterboard, then folding, rolling, cutting and arranging socks to create the face. The socks are dipped in a plaster of Elmer's glue and water so they dry and harden, creating a three-dimensional sculpture. They're then painted to accentuate the features of the faces.

"It's a little weird that you make this with socks," said fourth-grader Brady Vallieres, while working on the gluing process.

"But you get used to it a few seconds," said his classmate Aidan Crofts.

At surface value, the sock faces look like monsters — wrinkled faces, some with multiple eyes, or snaggletoothed grins, and in a smorgasbord of discordant colors and patterns. But deeper contemplation reveals the humanity of these wild creations.

Senior museum educator Amanda Tobin said last week, while watching students work, she heard them wonder aloud about "who's foot was in this sock" and what the characters are doing, or thinking or feeling.

Since he began making sock paintings and murals a few years ago, Johnson's received sock donations from people around the world, "all of them collectively worn by hundreds of different feet. Then, you have all these different hands making art from the, and people, from museum staff to the teen group helping with the painting. So you have so many of these kernels of life in all of it, which gives consciousness to how it relates to empathy as well."

"It's definitely fun," said fourth-grader Rhiannon Perras of the project.

"I think it's awesome," said her Clarksburg classmate Kendall Martin. "It shows my creativity and you get to learn something new."

Martin also said working with a professional artist, in this case Johnson, "is a real honor."

In her class, Clarksburg Elementary teacher Pamela Babcock finds moments to connect with the concepts of empathy, whether it's in morning meeting, talks about bullying, or writing prompts. "It's a really accessible project and interactive," she said.

Kidspace Director of Exhibitions and Education Laura Thompson said the current exhibit and programs also involve the museum's Teen Task Force, local artists and education evaluators. Artist Jesse Fleming will soon lead a parent workshop, so "we can show how the concept of empathy can be worked into the home life too," Thompson said.


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