April 24, 2003
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MLS artist-in-residence Joan Damankos—
Learning about children of the world, and having fun with goo

Jacob Fugate and Brian Smith make papier-maché while Cole Honeycutt talks with artist-in-residence Joan Damankos.

All over the world, kids are pretty much the same. Rich or poor, in cold climates or hot, they like to play. If they have no other materials, they’ll make toys out of dirt, sticks and stones. Most kids love dolls, and their dolls — whether created from clay or straw or wood — reflect the same human figure.

For the past three weeks, third and fourth graders at Mills Lawn School have been expanding their knowledge of children of the world by learning about their toys. As part of the school’s yearlong arts and diversity project, “Looking In, Looking Out: Our Place in the World,” the children created papier-maché toys from many countries and continents, under the guidance of artist-in-residence Joan Damankos, a sculptor from Cleveland.

Tonight, April 24, from 7–8 p.m., at the school, Damankos and the students will present the culmination of the residency, a collaborative sculpture called “Playtime,” to parents and the community. The public is invited to attend.

The finished piece will feature the students’ handmade papier-maché toys, modeled on dolls from such places as Yugoslavia, Mexico and Afghanistan, along with papier-maché tic-tac-toe games, maracas, boats and Chinese kites. Models of animals, including a monkey, a giraffe, and a frog, will also be featured on the sculpture, along with a painted bicycle wheel and a variety of clocks.

The piece is called “Playtime” because “you always have enough time to play,” said third-grader Lauren Westendorf.

Creating toys from other parts of the world helps children realize their commonalities, Damankos believes.

“They can see that everyone plays with similar things,” she said.

An expanded awareness of students’ place in the world, and how they’re alike or different from others, is the point of “Looking In, Looking Out,” according to organizers. Funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Yellow Springs Endowment for Education, the project was designed to use the arts to help students explore the theme of diversity. So far this year theater directors, musicians, a dancer and a visual artist have worked with the children.

The culmination of Damankos’ residency, a collaborative sculpture, will be grounded on a large blue sphere, painted in the image of Pangaea, the huge prehistoric land mass which later divided into separate continents.

The Pangaea image, suggested by the children, reflects their concern with the current state of the world, said Damankos, who said the children stated that, if all the continents were connected, there might be fewer wars.

“There was a real yearning to make things right in the world,” said Damankos.

Mainly, though, the kids, observed in a recent session, seemed to be having a wonderful time. As they constructed toys out of papier-maché, the excitement was palpable as kids waited their turn to dip their strips of paper into the glue, then squeeze the glue through their fingers.

“Oh, I love this,” said third-grader Austin Pence as he dragged his paper through the glue.

“This gel feels good, to have it between your fingers,” said Bryan Smith, with a huge grin on his face.

“It’s gooey, like snot,” said one third-grader, who was quickly reprimanded by another for speaking in such a graphic manner.

But the first stood her ground. “We’re kids,” she said. “That’s what we do.”

Having a great time with papier-maché is what kids do, said Damankos.

“Kids love to make things,” she said. “And doing papier-maché, they get to put their hands in the glue and have the full sensual experience.”

She especially enjoys seeing children expand their sense of what they can do, said Damankos, who said kids usually begin her residencies saying they can’t do sculpture. But it doesn’t take long to change their minds.

Her residency began with Damankos sharing with the children her collection of world dolls and toys. The kids chose which toy to make — one chose a Balinese votive doll, another a Mexican clay doll — and brainstormed how to assemble their toys into a single sculpture. A drawing of the agreed-on finished piece shows a wild-looking creation of clocks, toys and spheres, which the children hope to permanently exhibit in their school.

Children’s energy and ideas inspire her, said Damankos, who was a painter before she began making sculpture in the early 1990s. Since then, she has frequently worked as an artist-in-residence, and she appeared last week to be enjoying her time with Mills Lawn children.

“I can’t say enough good things about the school,” she said. “All the kids are charming and exceptional in their own way. People have been so open and accepting. It’s a nice place to be.”

Damankos encourages everyone who’s interested in sculpture, toys, diversity or kids to take part in tonight’s sharing of the collaborative project.

“It will be lively,” she said. “We want it to be fun. That’s the point.”

—Diane Chiddister