Kids creating through 'Consenses'

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NORTH ADAMS — Could you compose a song inspired by a piece of art you just viewed? How would you feel if you song, in turn, became the inspiration for a sculpture, or a dance, or perhaps a baked good? Would you be willing to share your creation along with the credit to others?

"It's pretty fun," said Ethan Medon, a fifth-grade student at Gabriel Abbot Memorial School in Florida.

"And challenging," said his classmate, Nora Therrien.

Last week, there were among nearly 90 Northern Berkshire fourth- and fifth-graders who got to spend the school day at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art with their teachers, working with guest artist and musician, Sally Taylor. Students from Gabriel Abbott Memorial, Greylock and Clarksburg elementary schools were introduced to a multi-sensory initiative and curriculum Taylor created called "Consenses." It's a creative process of collaboration through which one person's work or idea is used to inspire and inform another person's work, and so on.

Over the course of the day, students viewed art installations together, took notes on their thoughts and feelings in reactions to the works, then used those notes to create their own artworks based on their thoughts, feelings and discussions.

"It's like a game of telephone that unfolds through all the senses and inspires us to see the world through others' eyes," says Taylor in a statement about the process and the exhibit she curated called "Come to Your Senses: Art to See, Smell, Hear, Taste and Touch," currently on view in the Kidspace gallery at Mass MoCA.

The interactive multimedia installation features photographers, dancers, chefs, sculptors, composers among others, whose works were inspired by the the thoughts and art of Northern Berkshire fifth-graders.

One of the first works visitors can see upon entering Kidspace is a painting by Kaitlyn Mongeon. She attended Colegrove Park Elementary School when she created a painting of interwoven strokes and dots of orange, blue, pink, red, green and yellow inspired by Taylor prompting her with the word, "freedom."

Mongeon writes: ""Freedom" tastes like chocolate. It feels like silk and it's the sensation of running through a jungle. To me this painting is freedom because every line is different and everybody is different. We can be who we are."

The student's work, over the past year, spurred an international chain of original artful reactions, including: a song by Josh and Seth Larson of Something Underground, which inspired a dance by Andile Ndlovu, the catalyst of a poem by Elise Paschen, informing a photograph made by Laura Hendricks and ultimately leading to a custom-crafted brownie baked by Kim Klopstock of The Lily and the Rose.

Taylor likens this process to the Indian parable of "The Blind Men and the Elephant," which illustrates how, individually, each person offers a unique way of looking at something, but through collective discussion of these views, common threads can be found.

In looking solely at Mongeon's painting, the Larsons "could hear sounds of the jungle," and, upon hearing their subsequent composition, Ndlovu said, "The song felt like silk, like freedom," which traces back to essence of the student's painting. Even at the end of the chain, Klopstock's confection itself hearkens back to Mongeon's observation that "freedom tastes like chocolate."

"It's amazing that it all started with a kid's piece of art," said Mass MoCA Director of Education and Kidspace Curator Laura Thompson.

Taylor's residency and work with students and teachers will continue through the school year, and ties in with a larger "Art 4 Change" project that's designed to help students, teachers, parents and visitors to develop positive habits of social-emotional well-being, like empathy, optimism and courage.

"We don't usually do this amount of making art or get to make art in this way," said Gabriel Abbott Memorial fifth-grader Ryleigh Rathbun. "I like it."

Science and math teacher Lori Austin, who participated in the program, along with her colleagues Kimberly Wall and Chris Howard, said the fourth- and fifth-graders have been coming to Mass MoCA to work with professional artists like Taylor since they were in preschool.

"The kids feel like this is their place. They love being a part of it," said Austin.

"It's a big thing for them to be able to work together like this," said Wall.

At the end of their visit, each student had a hand in creating three new pieces of art, as well as a poem or song.

"By the end of the day," said Taylor. "I want them to get that their version of reality is unique but limited, yet they can still see and feel how their voices matter."


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