Please visit the Public Art in Russia Katherine Gressel
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This project, whose title translates to "From Our Windows," builds upon a recurring theme in my own artwork: combining multiple views in one picture and using windows as compositional devices. The project transformed an upstairs corridor in public school 33 in St. Petersburg through inserting painted windows on its walls. The school serves deaf and hearing-impaired students aged 7-16. The hallway runs through a dormitory for younger students who live at the school, and the administration wanted the art installation to relate to the thoughts and interests of these young children, and involve the participation throughout of a core team of about 10 students in the upper grades.
Six resulting "windows" (or window groupings) were created over about two and a half weeks of working nearly every day with this core team of students. Each window structure is made of wood with three-dimensional frames carved by a professional sculptor according to my design specifications. The carvings suggest the style of traditional Russian folk art windows, alluding to the importance of historic preservation. Each window shows different interior or exterior scenes based on drawings by both all of the younger classes and the core mural team in response to the question, "what would you like to see inside and outside your windows?" Three "outdoor" windows display an improved version of the actual neighborhood outside; an juxtaposition of faraway lands students might like to visit (including NYC); and a fantastical, fairy tale world. Three "indoor" window sets show different warm and welcoming household interiors; a museum gallery (based loosely on the famous St. Petersburg Hermitage museum); and a classroom. Rather than showing people in each scene, I incorporated playful, cartoonish cats, dogs, and birds based on the students' renderings of homes and neighborhoods full of animals. For each window frame, students designed stencils specific to the content of each window, and used them to create decorative patterns around the windows; such patterns are a traditional component of all Russian household objects.
There were some obvious challenges in undertaking such a complex public art with young people who not only speak a different language from me, but for the most part have very limited hearing abilities even in Russian translation. However, I also discovered universal ways of communicating through gestures, pictures, and visual demonstrations, arguably the most essential components of collaborative art-making. Most of the students had a prior interest and background in art but had not previously worked on this type of project. Yet some had highly developed artistic talent, and all showed tremendous commitment, staying late after school and coming in on their weekend to work. I also owe a lot to CEC's highly organized and dedicated project manager, Nastya Tolstaya, who worked alongside me with the students, acted as the translator and facilitator between all parties involved in the project, and did essential hands-on work too!
My hope is that the project not only speaks to my own artistic interests, but reflects the ideas of the children at the school and breeds a sense of both ownership and imagination. Windows often serve as metaphors for new possibilities, and I hope that these windows will inspire future students to think beyond their immediate surroundings and take advantage of all their capabilities.