A few months ago I was dangling over the fourth floor of the State Building in Van Nuys, unfurling a 34-foot round parachute. It opened and cascaded down and gently reached the floor below, where seven other painted parachutes spanned 80 feet across the rooftop. The common everyday space, home to government offices and the Department of Motor Vehicles, had been transformed into a vast waterfall of hopes, dreams, prayers, and personal messages of over 400 young artists.
This was the fifth large-scale public work I have participated in creating as a teaching artist at LACMA. I love working with 7th and 8th graders, and for this project, we settled into the classes of two teachers at Van Nuys Middle School. During six workshops in their classrooms, we tackled the concepts of “water” and “personal message,” with the intention of creating a site-specific artwork, since we were offered the space of the third floor rooftop of the nearby Van Nuys State Building. As the students translated their ideas of “water” in paint and text on cloth, they took risks and tried new techniques—culminating in a public work that is both rich in process and in substance. By the nature of the scale of the artwork, as well as the use of diverse materials and methodical process, students were encouraged to think and act like a team of professional artists. Junior high school students seriously have a lot to say and as they felt more and more confident with the materials, their passion took over. For all the diverse experience found within an 8th grade classroom, they share a voice that is brave, clever, emotional, serious yet funny; they express a vulnerability and a strength that is specific and in many ways unknowable but to their peers. It was an exciting role to be an ally to these young artists’ voices and to encourage an expansive vision of themselves in a larger public arena.
Together, the students created an oceanic landscape on the open-air rooftop of the Van Nuys State Building, which was presented within Assemblymember Adrin Nazarian’s third annual Art Walk. This installation included eight repurposed military parachutes that were painted with gesso and acrylic in an impressionistic style of whites, blues, and greens, all of which rested on an armature of chicken wire “waves” which were activated by the steady flow of wind. As these waves flowed towards the viewer, a cresting bloom of white and blue strips of cloth painted in various shades of blue reached over the railing with handwritten personal messages. The audience was invited to join and add their own hopes, dreams, and prayers, alongside the artists from Van Nuys Middle School.
Watching the students encounter the art work installed, I noticed a distinct pattern. First, there was an excitement to see their paint marks swirling in the wind above them at such an exaggerated scale. Then, the giggling followed as the wind pushed the material up into the sky like a clumsy yet graceful sea monster. They all hoped for the funny, slightly spooky moment when the parachute would be lifted by a strong gust and swell out beyond the railing just enough to touch them. It felt alive, out of their control, yet they knew it was their own creation.
Once the wind-driven tricks of the overall installation were fully taken in, the students would make a beeline to the ties and methodically look up and down for theirs. When they did encounter their work, they would run and show their mother, best friend, or even a stranger, saying, “Look, here I am.” The students became a swarming wave of proud artists showing each other their work. “Here, this is where I am, where are you?“ It was then that I felt the universe click in to place. For me, that moment is when the work became a success. As a team of artists we had made contact and transmitted the message across that divide of adolescence. In that moment the art was speaking back to the students and it clearly stated: you are a powerful creator, you are worthy of respect, and you seriously have a lot to say.
This project was part of the Art Programs with the Community: LACMA On-Site school and community program. For more about the project, take a look at this video.