Sentinel & Enterprise
WILMINGTON — With help from the Fitchburg Revolving Museum and dozens of local students, green-chemistry education nonprofit Beyond Benign has designed an exhibit that represents a beautiful marriage of art and science.
Beyond Benign is the sister organization of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry, run by scientific researcher John Warner. The institute works to develop green-chemistry technologies while Beyond Benign, run by Warner’s wife, Amy Cannon, focuses on K-12 student outreach and education.
Beyond Benign also makes use of classrooms, research labs and an art gallery in the institute’s building. The current exhibit at the gallery, “Birds of a Feather,” features 42 photos taken by nature photographer and environmental health researcher Pete Myers.
Cannon explained that in the spirit of student outreach, she wanted to incorporate student work into Myers’ exhibit. She found an excellent partner in Fitchburg Revolving Museum Founder and Artistic Director Jerry Beck.
“We’re trying to transform the way chemistry is taught and learned,” Cannon said. “We’re looking to highlight the green-chemistry projects that go on at the institute, and then work with students to design art around them, to get them thinking about these environmental issues.”
Cannon explained that most of the gallery exhibits created by Beyond Benign include a student-work component. The organization has worked with Beck before, but she is now trying to solidify the partnership.
“We thought this partnership would be fantastic,” said Beck, “because they can get their message out there, and the Revolving Museum could be a partner in expanding their message and bringing in public art.”
For this particular project, Beck and Cannon wanted to focus on Myers’ birds while finding ways to expand on his photographs. Beck reached out to several schools in North Central Massachusetts and the Merrimack Valley before finding groups of students to help him build a bridge between art, technology and nature.
Jamie Aubuchon, a technology teacher at the Sizer School, a Fitchburg-based charter school, said Beck got in touch recently, looking for classes that might want to be involved with the exhibit.
“Since I’m teaching technology, and one of the areas that we cover is Photoshop, we thought it might be a good project to incorporate,” Aubuchon said. “The theme of the project was migrating birds and flying birds, so the (students) spent a day researching birds and deciding which ones they wanted to use. I told them to find a picture they found interesting and apply the Photoshop filters we’ve been using all semester.”
Ultimately, about 45 students created Photoshopped images of birds, which were printed out, laminated and hung together to make a “quilt.”
“When you look at each individual piece, it’s exciting to see,” Aubuchon said, “but when they come together as a whole, that’s what makes it more powerful. This was a good way for them to see how they can bring it all together to create something much bigger and better than they could have done individually.”
He added that the students “were pretty excited about (their work) hanging in a gallery,” and that he hopes to have the quilt returned to the school before the beginning of next school year.
Members of the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster and the Seven Hills Charter School in Worcester contributed to the exhibit as well.
Beck said he was excited to get the Boys & Girls Club involved, because he sees the organization as a “model for holistic education and creativity.”
He spent a day with about a dozen Boys & Girls Club students, collecting sticks and shaping them into bird sculptures. They built their sculptures based on sketches by Leonardo Da Vinci, which Beck suggested as a way “to make the connection between humans and flight.”
Volunteer coordinator Rebecca Cyganiewicz said students who participated in the project had “a wonderful time.”
She said they never lost focus and were excited about the project the whole way through. They were likely motivated in part by the thought that their work would be shown in a gallery, Cyganiewicz said.
“Being able to collect the materials right here at the club, and then putting them together and turning them into something beautiful, I think they really enjoyed that, too,” she added. “Hopefully this will inspire some of them to be creative, and to continue to make art. We’re very proud of being a STEAM-focused club, so science, technology, math, and engineering, but then finding ways to connect art.”
In fact, the “A” added to “STEM” is for “art.”
The bird sculptures are now displayed in the Warner Babcock Gallery, along with the Sizer students’ photo quilt and the series of photographs taken by Myers.
Cannon said about 60 or 70 people came to the exhibit opening, and she was very happy with how the students’ artwork turned out.
“It’s beautiful,” she said, adding that Myers was happy about the collaboration as well.
“Pete was really excited to have student work inspired by his work,” Cannon said.
After such a positive experience, Cyganiewicz and Aubuchon said their respective students would definitely be interested in another project like this.
“Jerry seemed very pleased and excited with the way that (the quilt) came out,” Aubuchon said, “and we are going to try to partner again in the future.”
There’s a chance that some of the students could even have their work featured in the Warner Babcock Gallery again, because Beck and Cannon said they plan for this partnership to become more formal over the coming months and years.
“From here on out, we want to work with Jerry each time we do an exhibit, to bring the students in,” Cannon said. “It helps bring together art and science, and then communicate that to a broader audience.”
“I believe we’re perfect collaborators,” Beck said, “and I’m excited about working with them on projects across the region.”