Putting their art education on display

Students at South Mecklenburg High School are learning what it means to have an education based on collaboration, problem-solving and real-world experience.

That’s been a driving force in the learning style championed by a group of teachers at the school, who recently led about 100 South Mecklenburg students in a design and Modern Runway project in partnership with the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art in uptown Charlotte.

The project was centered on a recent exhibit at the museum called Modernism in Changing Times: Works for 1968, and involved the school’s interior design and apparel classes, as well as a beginning art course.  Led by housing and interior design teacher Debbie Dunn, apparel teacher Ren Jetton and art teacher Ashley Graham, students embarked on a three-and-a-half-month-long project of concept to completion, designing three rooms, fashion clothing and jewelry that depicted and symbolized character and features of famous art pieces from 1968. The work debuted at Bechtler on Jan. 14 for 300 invite-only guests. It’s the second furniture and fashion show for the program, which launched last year as a project between the interior design and apparel classes, but this year’s project with Bechtler took the partnership to a whole new level, teachers said.

“It was a big undertaking, but it was definitely one of the highlights of our careers. I think it’s such a good visual of the (IDEA) academy model,” a new program at the school that focuses on integration and cross-curriculum collaboration throughout various courses and subjects. “I think as it’s developed more, we are going to be a force to be reckoned with,” Dunn said.

Collaboration isn’t an easy task, the teachers said, but in order to be successful in the classrooms, collaboration between teachers first and foremost is the key to success. That was the basis for the Modern Runway project, which will be showcased again in Charlotte at the Southern Spring Home & Garden Show from Feb. 21 to 23 and Feb. 28 to March 2 at the Park Expo and Conference Center, and that’s the hope for future projects at the school, as well.

Students started working on their 1968 exhibit after visiting Bechtler last October. Surprised by the different variations of art, which included works from artists such as Picasso and Andy Warhol, students were caught off guard by the minimalist, but rebellious, approach depicted in many of the pieces, Graham said. That proved to be a challenge for students when they got back to the classroom, working on sketches of jewelry, clothes and rooms that depict the same minimalist design.

“All of the modern art and pop art was created in 1968,”Graham said.

The group also worked closely with Bechtler teaching artist Pam Wittfield on the project. “This art was more about the concept rather than the form. The students had a hard time taking something like an object and making it simple, and visualizing how to turn two-dimensional objects into three dimensional

Graham’s students designed jewelry for the exhibit out of recycled materials mostly found in Graham’s classroom. From coat hangers, bottle caps, Post-it Notes, panty hose, Ping-Pong balls and cardboard, the students used anything and everything they could find.

Jetton’s students used fabric funded through Bechtler, using vintage patterns and some vintage pieces, including two of Jetton’s own outfits worn in 1968. Students researched styles from the time period, all while working to reflect art pieces found at Bechtler, Jetton

Dunn’s class had the challenge of creating three life-size rooms, including a bedroom, family room and formal living room, all within the confines of her classroom and hallway. With the help of JE Dunn Construction and funding from the school’s parent-teacher group, the class was able to design the project with custom-built walls. Most of the pieces in the room were vintage in their own right, but were upcycled to reflect the 1968 style.

All three teachers say each class’s contribution to the exhibit showed continuity throughout, as the teachers directed their own classes, but also were heavily involved with each other’s classes – Graham, the youngest of the three, offering the artistic and expressive eye, Dunn leading the way in terms of the big picture and overall design and logistics, and Jetton bringing more insight and creativity to a decade of her past.

“We were floating back between rooms to see what the designs were like,” Graham said. “Everything was cohesive. It just fit.”

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