Relinked: Public artist meshes with school kids

Talk about a silver lining. Two days before Christmas, 2001, Aaron Fein learned that his sculpture, "Transformer," an early ArtinPlace construction on the Route 250 Bypass, had been destroyed.

Run over. Smashed. Kaput.

Although it looked like a chain-link fence, "Transformer" was actually a delicate mesh of tiny repeating components: clear plastic tubing and short wooden dowels. Not easy to rebuild. Dejected, Fein picked up the pieces and took his sculpture home.

Fast-forward half a year. Albemarle County art teacher Isabelle Ramsey wants to jump-start art at Baker-Butler, the new elementary school where she would teach in the fall. She watches with sympathy as Fein's sculpture comes down and checks out the ArtinPlace.com website, where she reads Fein's artistic philosophy:

I attempt to turn workaday objects– paper-clips, toilet-paper, brass rods, string– into pieces that are both beautiful and conscious of social mores and meanings. I am always astonished by the myriad messages found in the small, seemingly insignificant elements of design.

 She figures out the equation. Her energy plus a new space plus Fein's public sculpture equals a way to get kids to care about art.

Over at Baker-Butler, assistant superintendent Pam Moran heard the idea and gave it a thumbs-up. Keith Hammon, Baker-Butler's principal, gave the idea his total support. In fact, the county agreed to budget for a full-time art teacher at Baker-Butler (many county schools have just a part-timer) and to provide a grant to hire Fein to come to the school occasionally.

Now, a nine-month gestation period later, Aaron Fein has become a welcome face at Baker-Butler, first re-erecting "Transformer" in the school's courtyard and now inspiring dozens of children to create a new sculpture for the school's entryway.

"I've already made 38 pieces, Mr. Fein!" calls out Melissa Herrera. "And I need a bandaid!"

Herrera and 14 other kids in the Baker-Butler after-school Art Club have spent their last two afternoons sticking dowels into plastic tubing, one piece at a time. Fein has made chipboard work pads to help in the tedious process. Some kids press the dowel up against it, some tap against it, some use it as a measuring guide. Melissa pushed so hard that she wore the skin off the pad of her thumb.

"How many have we made, Mr. Fein?" asks Courtney Elliott. Fein answers that if they use all the materials he brought in for the day, they will have made 600 components– twice the number he figured they could handle.

"How many do we have to make?" asks Jazmine Davis. Fein figures 2200. Slowly, other children will be brought into the process, with these fifth graders leading the way. Each component of plastic and wood will become a diamond, and diamonds will knit together into a larger shape, just as they did in "Transformer."

"Will it be hard to make?" asks Emma Spellman. "I don't know," answers Fein. "I've never made it. I've never even seen it," he says, his eyes agleam with the fun of making new art. "I'm just as excited to see the big thing as you are."

Many different lessons come out of the time kids are spending on this project. "What's the shape of 'Transformer,' out there in the courtyard?" asks Isabelle Ramsey .

"Hiyo–" tries Joe Ramos. "Hyper–" advances Billy Crist. "Hyperactive!" answers Joe McCray triumphantly.

"Close," says Mrs. Ramsey, going to the board and writing as she says it: "hyperbolic paraboloid."

"And what do you think you have been learning by working with Mr. Fein on his sculpture?" she asks as the noisy two hours come to an end.

"Finish what you start," says Ahmed El-Rifai. "Determination," says Dalton Hudson. "Patience," suggests Caitlyn Payne. "Don't give up even though your fingers hurt," says Jay Schwab. "It has made my fingers stronger!" adds Rachel Simons. "If you're doing something that is hard and keep going, at the end there is an achievement." offers Rachel Whitlock. "I've learned that everybody enjoys making this sculpture," says Tayler Thornburg.

Sarah Huestis answers last, and her answer gathers up all the lessons of Aaron Fein's visit to her school: "It teaches us to take a second look at art. To ask what the artist intended. And to think about it before you do something like run a sculpture down."