Ledyard art students are serious about their work

By 10:30 a.m. one day last week, Sierra Mendez-Neff's fingertips had turned a grayish blue and second block was nearly over, but she hardly looked up from her artwork.

As one of eight students in advanced studio art, the highest-level art class at Ledyard High School, senior Mendez-Neff was painting scraps of paper onto a collage that was beginning to take the shape of downtown New London.

The juniors and seniors in advanced studio art, said teacher Kate Flanagan, have mastered the foundational skills taught in Art I and II and are ready to pursue their own ideas in the advanced class.

"I love working with all my students, but this group has particularly strong chemistry with one another," said Flanagan, "and they really get invested in what they are doing. They are very serious about their work, but are having fun, too."

Most recently, Flanagan assigned the students to make a collage - or an 'assemblage,' because the art can incorporate materials other than paper and photos - representing a community in the vein of Harlem artist Romare Bearden's colorful collage "The Block."

Many students chose to represent Ledyard, but some represented other locations.

"New London's kind of been where my life revolves around,"said Mendez-Neff, a Waterford resident who went to a New London middle school and chose to go to Ledyard for its agriscience program.

As she completed the New London sky on Tuesday, Mendez-Neff pointed out the elements that brought texture to her work, like yellow netting she clipped from fruit packaging that took the place of the train station lights.

The project has students collecting a "bunch of little doodads that we find," said Mendez-Neff, such as pieces of clay left over from ceramic-making, ribbon and tissue paper. To create the appearance of a graffiti-covered surface in New London, Mendez-Neff used pieces of printer paper covered in text written with colorful markers.

Flanagan said a few of the advanced art students are interested in pursuing a career in art, but "most of these kids are very well-rounded, juggling things like sports, music, the agri-science program, part-time jobs, and keeping their grades up."

While art class can be a creative outlet for the students, Flanagan believes it also provides "important skills like creative thinking and problem-solving."

"The answers are seldom spelled out for the projects, and the students approach things differently," said Flanagan, whose students have also completed self-portraits and ceramic busts this semester. "Their unique personalities all really show through in everything they do."

Their self-portraits, which hang on the wall of the high school's second floor, provide a vivid example of that.

Each student created a realistic self-portrait in ebony pencil, designed to be "attuned to the physical," said Flanagan.

But beneath the eight framed pencil drawings in the hallway are eight photocopies of the students' second self portraits, creations that are more abstract and meant to represent the "conceptual" parts of the self, said the art teacher.

The students could use any medium for the second self-portrait and were instructed to research a specific artist that they connected with their personality and incorporate that artist's style into the self-portrait.

Among the more unusual conceptual self-portraits was a painted suit created by senior Tyler Luke.

Luke was intrigued by Jean-Michel Basquiat, an artist who he said made abstract art in the 1980s that was "very primitive, in a way."

During his research, Luke read that Basquiat painted in Armani suits and would show up to art gallery openings wearing the expensive, paint-splattered outfit.

The idea connect with Luke, who said, "I like dressing nicely ... and I just thought it was a cool idea."

Then there was the nearly seven-foot-tall, Dr. Suess-based self portrait by senior Shellbi Buller.

"Who doesn't love Dr. Suess? He's so fun," said Buller, who said Suess' art was like her personality: "fun and vibrant and weird and different"

Buller, whose family moved to Connecticut from Louisiana in February, is working on a collage that combines two communities: the "pastel" village of Mystic and the "really vibrant and crazy" city of New Orleans, separated by a river.

Though she lives in Ledyard, Buller chose to represent Mystic because "I just think it's really pretty and quaint and the exact opposite of New Orleans."

And although she might miss New Orleans' vibrancy, Buller said the art classes at Ledyard High School beat the pencil-and-paper, still life-focused offerings at her Louisiana school.

"I love them, I think they're so fun here," she said.




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