At 9 a.m. sharp last Monday morning, assistant curator Michelle Klein eyed the wrapped artwork flooding Guild Hall’s main lobby.
There was only one way to get an accurate count. It was time to unwrap.
With the help of chief curator Christina Strassfield and three installers, Ms. Klein distributed the pieces into the Moran and Spiga galleries. Slowly, the boxes opened and the canvases unrolled, each more surprising and colorful than the last.
Then, one piece stopped her in her tracks. “What?!” Ms. Klein exclaimed, kneeling in front of the canvas. “This is fantastic! This is John Alexander!”
Ms. Strassfield laughed. The painting was not one of Mr. Alexander’s renowned nature scenes. It was a print by 30 of Montauk Public School’s art students.
All of them under the age of 12.
“We just had an exhibition of John Alexander last year and this is just so representational of his work,” Ms. Klein said last week, gesturing toward “Nature Print,” which is opening up the Spiga Gallery at the East Hampton museum. “And that doesn’t say a thing about him. It says something about the students.”
On Saturday, dozens of participating children from 11 local schools flocked to the museum, scouring the galleries for their one piece of artwork out of nearly 1,000 at the 22nd annual “Student Art Festival Part I.”
For many of the kids, this marks their artistic debuts—and what a way to start. The celebrated museum has exhibited many of the greats and, this year more than ever, they served as inspiration for the students, from eighth grade all the way down to kindergarten.
At Amagansett School, art teacher Liz Paris stuck to basics with her kindergarten class of 13 pupils. She gave them colorful pieces of tissue paper and showed them how to make flowers and lily pads. Then, they squirted them with water and watched the colors melt together.
Individually, they were simple, yet pretty. But together—mounted on three panels totaling 4½ feet long—they were spectacular. Their very own “Water Lilies,” as inspired by Claude Monet.
“They could tell each of their flowers apart and wanted to find them,” Ms. Paris said last week during a telephone interview. “‘Oh, that’s mine’ or ‘Mine’s over there.’ And, because of the scale, it was like they were in front of the large one at the MoMA. Because the kids are so small. Standing back, you would never guess it was kindergarteners who made it.”
The same can be said of most of the artwork, Ms. Klein agreed, from the drawings and abstract projects to the sculptures and mixed media pieces—many of which incorporate a taste of art history.
Underneath “Water Lilies” hangs a collection of 30 acrylic self-portraits by Montauk Public School students in Paul Salzman’s class. The children could set themselves anywhere they wanted, the art teacher explained in an email last week, but there was one rule: the portraits must be based on the photographs he snapped of them posing like Edvard Munch’s iconic “Der Schrei der Natur”—better known as “The Scream.” The fourth version of the original Munch composition sold for a record $119.9 million in May 2012.
As they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. This year’s annual student art show is practically glowing with homages.
“We always have our Jackson Pollocks and, sometimes, a few Vincent Van Goghs,” Ms. Klein said, “but there are a lot more famous paintings this year.”
Even if they never meant to be. Come to find out, the inspiration behind “Nature Print” was not Mr. Alexander’s work, art teacher Laura Cutillo confirmed last week during a telephone interview from her classroom at the Montauk Public School.
It was her garden.
“For years, I’ve been working with prints and painting from home, so I’m familiar with the technique. It’s very personal to me,” she said. “One day, I was admiring the winter foliage, thinking about printing, and I thought it would be wonderful to see if the kids enjoyed doing it, too.”
In November, Ms. Cutillo caught her students’ attention when she arrived to school with a box of unexpected supplies: fir, pine, boxwood, holly, blueberries and pine cones. She cut a 6-foot-by-5-foot piece of mural paper, laid it down on the floor next to containers of paint and showed the kids what to do next.
Over the course of three days, about 30 first-, third- and fifth-graders drifted in and out of the classroom, contributing to the print during their spare time. The final touches were several shocks of red paint, printed onto the mural with a cardinal-shaped sponge.
When December rolled around, the kids were astonished to see their finished piece hanging in the school’s entryway. And Ms. Cutillo said she was sure that they will be even more thrilled after visiting Guild Hall.
She certainly was when she found out details about the artwork’s placement in the exhibit.
“I didn’t realize it was opening the gallery, oh I’m so happy to hear that!” she said. “The way it was done was so spontaneously. It’s amazing when you work with students. Just very spontaneous, wonderful things happen like that.”
The 22nd annual “Student Art Festival Part I,” with work by students from public, private and home schools in kindergarten through eighth grade will remain on view through Sunday, February 23, at Guild Hall in East Hampton. Admission to the exhibit is free. For more information, call 324-0806 or visit guildhall.org.