Westmere fifth-graders Creating a world of winter wonder within a window

Westmere fifth-graders
Creating a world of winter wonder within a window

GUILDERLAND — Mary K. Weeks can remember the magic of store windows at Christmastime. This was before mega malls and big-box bargain stores made such artistry obsolete.
"I grew up with memories of going into the city and being transported, looking at the windows of the big department stores," she said.

Weeks even worked a brief stint as a window dresser.

Now she’s the art teacher at Westmere Elementary School and she has led the school’s fifth-graders in creating a window display for the Little Book House in Stuyvesant Plaza.
"I’ve done installation art," said Weeks. "I wanted to make this bigger than the pieces and keep it spontaneous."

The display, which celebrates Albany's First Night, is alive with vibrant color. White paper snowflakes, some gilded with sparkles, are mounted on the glass, framing the window.

Inside, books about winter are nestled in a blanket of snow: Mouse’s First Snow, Snow Day Dance, The First Day of Winter, Times Square, with a picture of a New Year’s Eve crowd, and A Really Good Snowman are among the illustrated selections.

Up from the snow burst colorful Mardi-Gras-style masks made of papier-maché. There’s a sweet brown horse, boldly outlined in gold; a velvet-back cat with hot-pink ears; a wild ostrich with orange feathers and red sparkles; and a whimsical goldfish that looks like it could fly.

Beyond the colorful masks are a backdrop of historical Albany buildings. To the side, is the modern skyline of Albany, complete with the descending obelisks of the Rockefeller Plaza; the Egg; and the venerable Alfred E. Smith Building — all styled in tones of white and silvery gray against an ice-blue star-studded sky.

High above, descending from the white ceiling, are cascades of colorful party streamers — as if time were suspended at midnight of New Year’s Eve.


Weeks was contacted about the project last spring by Albany’s Office of Special Events. Susan Cleary, who has a son and daughter attending Westmere, acted as the city’s liaison for the project.
Weeks opened the project to fifth-graders. All of them participated to some degree but a group of about 30 students, which she termed "highly motivated," met regularly on Mondays and Thursdays after school for eight weeks to complete the project.

First, the fifth-graders agreed on a theme — celebration.

Then they worked in groups on various parts of the display. They had to draw the landmark buildings freehand from small black-and-white drawings.
"We were on a tight schedule and didn’t have a projector. They had to enlarge them freehand," said Weeks. "I couldn’t believe they did it."
She helped the students with such techniques as making the custom-mixed grays for the plaza skyline backdrop. "But they did it themselves," she said.

The masks, representing carnivals popular for New Year’s celebrations in different cultures, were created from papier-maché by teams of two, said Weeks.
Asked about problems with kids creating art in pairs or by committee, when art is usually seen as an individual pursuit, Weeks said, "I was a little leery." But, she went on, it worked out well. If one student, for example, couldn't stay after school, her partner could do the next step.
"The kids had to communicate with each other and work out designs and solutions," she said.
In creating the buildings, which form the backdrop for the display, students worked in committees of up to six. "They understood it was for the good of the artwork, not the individual artist," she said. "They learned a lot about team work."
She went on about her students, "They had such a sense of commitment about the project. There was risk-taking in the process. They didn’t have a final view."

Because the display area is so small, only one student could help Weeks assemble the final product. Susan Cleary volunteered her fifth-grade son, Zachary, who was a tremendous help, Weeks said.
Many of the students and their families rushed out to see the display right away, she said. "They had only seen it in bits and pieces before."

Having their artwork displayed in a public place was thrilling for her students, Weeks said.
"I felt a real rush of energy coming from them," she said, "knowing it was being put in a venue for the community to see. There’s a great pride of ownership."
She went on, "It’s all they’ve been talking about. It’s been magical."

"Pride of ownership"

Weeks is familiar with that feeling herself. Not only does she teach art, she creates art.
Although she started her career as a Spanish teacher, Weeks said, "Art was always my passion and my love." She went back to school for a master's degree and has taught art at every level.

Her own artwork ranges from brightly-colored acrylic paintings to, most recently, solar-plate print-making, where etched plates are made by using the sun rather than chemicals.

Some of her work is currently displayed as part of a faculty show at the Guilderland Public Library and this Sunday, she’ll be selling her digital prints at the Albany Institute of History and Art.
"I’ve always considered myself a teaching artist," said Weeks. "Continuing to work on my own work keeps me fresh in the field."

She understands the pride her students take in their work.
"They have a great pride of ownership in what they created," Weeks said. "They want them back. The city wants the masks for another display. But I promised the kids they’d have them back and I’m good for my word."

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