Tuesday, May 23, 2017

that time we had class on the beach

Two years ago I was building a sand fort on the beach with my kids.  We had spent the week in the sand building new and interesting things each day.  Beach walkers would stop and ask questions and say nice things.  I joked with G while I was carving a skull on the front of the fort that my dream job would be to find a way to get paid to sculpt on the beach.  Last week, that dream came true.

Last Monday I waited on Luke and Molo to arrive at my house early so we could take off for Charleston.  We had to deliver a couple of drawings for the Piccolo Spoleto Juried Exhibition on our way to our sand sculpture class in Pawley's Island.  When we arrived about an hour earlier than the van full of the rest of the class, I tossed my luggage on the floor and walked out to the beach to survey the situation.  My classroom and sculpture studio for the week would be my favorite stretch of land on Earth.  

Last year I pitched my sand sculpture class to the department.  Everyone was on board.  Sandy is the go-to trip maker in the department so I asked her to make this happen.  She handled all the wrangling, finances and organizing of things.  All I had to do was go and teach the class.  

I know how this sounds.  You have to be thinking "Really?  That's a college level class?, You mean they paid you for that?"

And Yes.

And I can promise you it lived up to the academic rigor of any studio class in terms of time, work and effort put into each project.  My students earned their course credit.  They have the blisters, muscles and sore backs to prove it.

When the van arrived on Monday afternoon and luggage and bodies were wrangled upstairs to rooms, we gathered on the beach for a quick demonstration.  While I'm sure you all know how to pile up sand or dump a bucket upside down, our projects were going to be a bit more complex.  Students had been preparing for several weeks before stepping in the sand.  They researched some very accomplished sand sculptors and looked into several different methods of using sand as a sculptural material.  Each student started a sketchbook for the class and began designing things they wanted to make for the class.  But now it was time to actually start learning a new medium.  

They took to it very quickly.  You could almost see them revert back to childhood as they shucked off any sense of being cool or grown up.  They started digging and we all quickly piled up a mound of sand.  Within an hour it had developed into a skull with a wing and a crab claw and a sculpture logo on its back.  Instantly people started gathering to take photos and ask how we made it.  A mom brought her kids and was so happy to hear we would be there all week sculpting.  They vowed to check in after school each day.  People staying in our hotel were also excited about the prospect of seeing our work develop all week.  My students had all experienced showing their work in a gallery or in a critique and getting feedback from me, but for many this was their first time putting things out in the public eye and hearing feedback from regular people.  I could see my students responding to the smiles and laughter their work was providing.  

After a day of travel with a few hiccups and moving around some heavy, wet sand, they were ready to eat.  As a lover of all things beach, I planned for each day to feature a little hard work and a little fun.  We brushed the sand off quickly and loaded up to find some seafood.  We found Litchfield Beach Fish House very close to us and we piled in to see if they had room for 18.  The first words out of the host's mouth were "holy crap".  But after a couple of minutes they had tables pushed together and we all ate conference table style for our first family meal.  Bob, the owner came out to greet us.  His wife graduated from Lander years ago so he treated us like close relatives.  He made sure we all had paper pirate hats before we left and he insisted on taking our photo on his old fish truck.

There are many logistical things to consider when making sand sculpture on a public beach.  We wanted students to work close together so we wouldn't have to walk for miles just to check progress and critique.  But we also wanted to make sure everyone else had room to enjoy the beach.  We also talked about where to begin making each project.  The tide was always creeping in or out, providing the moisture you needed or threatening to destroy your work.  With their first solo attempt at making ephemeral art, most students opted to work above the high tide mark.  Still, they knew that each night they would need to flatten out their work so that the sea turtles would not have their paths impeded as they came in to lay eggs.  On this first full day of work, they made me proud.  They moved tons of sand (perhaps literally) and made some very good sculptures.  More and more beach walkers came up to ask what was going on.  Older Lander alumni would find us and bring their friends to see what we were doing.  Everyone smiled.  Everyone was happy.  Everyone was encouraging.  We worked from 9am to 3pm and my people were beat when they were done.  There was some sunburn and a lot of sore sculpture muscles.  After work we had another family dinner and then drove up to play mini golf.  We had a ball.  

As the days rolled by, everyone learned the importance of reapplying sunscreen often.  They learned to put on a shirt for a few hours.  They learned that eventually you have to stop pouring buckets of water on your sand and trust that it will hold.  They also learned about the positive power of public art.  We talked about the importance of sharing something positive with viewers and how they had the power to change someone's mood with their art.  We talked about making a positive contribution to their community.  These things started to register with my students and I think it may even change how they approach art making in the future.  

One night we thought our work was small enough to leave out all night.  We figured the turtles could navigate through easy enough in the unlikely event they decided to nest here.  So we accumulated 2 full days of sand sculptures in one small area.  It became our own little outdoor sculpture gallery and on the second day I watched from my balcony as crowds of people moved through the space carefully taking photos and talking about the art.  No one smashed the sculptures or messed with them.  It was as if they were in a museum.  Of course, the turtle patrol lady gave us a sketchy look so we made sure to flatten the area the next night.

We also learned about marketing.  After the first day Sandy and I talked about not only using social media to spread the word about what we were doing, but we also decided to send out press releases to the local media and even some news sources back home.  This was a great success for us.  The first TV news station showed up the following day to do interviews and take video and still photos.  The second and third stations showed up the next day to do the same.  One did a "happy news" segment to run after we would leave to talk about the impact we had on the entire beach area.  Several of my students were featured on the Official Myrtle Beach Instagram account and the Fox station out of Greenville ran a slideshow of our work on their Facebook page.  We also were the subject of countless personal photos.  Everyone brought their cameras and either drove to our hotel or walked from their residence to see the work.  Some of the visitors came out specifically to see our work.  It was truly a wonderful and encouraging response.  Not one single person complained about what we were doing.  Can you even imagine in this day and age how miraculous that is?  Of course we were careful to share with the hotel management just how much free publicity we arranged for them.  They were quietly keeping up with it all and were already aware that they had been mentioned in all the press.  We are currently in negotiations for discount pricing for next year!

We also sprinkled in a couple of educational field trips.  We took a half day to visit Brookgreen Gardens where we learned about renowned sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington and her contribution to South Carolina.  We took a tour of the sculpture garden and learned about several other American artists as well.  We also spent a day in Huntington Beach State Park and after working on the beach there, we got to tour Anna's summer home and sculpture studio.

On the last full beach day, we recruited a new student to Lander.  A young lady was on the beach with her family and I kept hearing them talk about the art and how the girl was interested in art.  She came over with her mom and talked to a few students and eventually to me.  She was in high school but already knew that she wanted to be a nurse.  She also has a big interest in art.  I happily explained that Lander has a great nursing program and that we offer a minor in art.  She was sold instantly.  We gave her some art department swag and got her hooked up with our school social media and she can't wait to apply.

I started out with the intention of posting a ton of photos of my students' work from the week.  There were so many great projects it was hard to narrow down the photos.  After a great deal of careful selections, I still had over 100 photos to upload here.  I decided that was ridiculous so I opted for more text and a minimal amount of pics.  I'll paste in some links to the news releases at the end and you can find several photos of sculptures there.  I decided it was more important to use words here because the thing that struck me most about that week was not the visual impact of my students' work.  I know they're good so producing great work in a new material was not that surprising.  What impacted me the most was how my students behaved.  

When you think of a group of 15 college students spending a week at the beach you may think of a pretty rowdy group of drunks trashing their rooms and needing bail money.  You might think they would be prone to making slightly obscene things in the sand and just generally being loud and obnoxious.  With this group, you would be very wrong.  They understood they were there to work and to have a little fun and they approached both with respect.  I asked them to get themselves up for breakfast at 8am and to be on the beach at 9am every morning and they did it.  We had no complaints to the hotel about behavior or noise and every sculpture made could have received a G rating from Disney.  

But here's where they went above and beyond expectations:  Our group featured just about every type of personality you can imagine.  There were students going through tough times emotionally, physically and mentally.  There was the interpersonal dynamic of a group spending every hour together for 6 days.  And in the midst of all that, they watched their tempers, edited their words and sometimes just sucked it up and took one for the team.  We couldn't make everyone happy with our meal choices or room assignments but they took it all in stride.  I watched as more than a few students saw other students feeling left out or bored and they went out of their way to befriend them and include them.  New friendships were made, closer friendships were made and some just learned to appreciate and love parts of people who used to annoy them.

Our schedule was made to allow for a couple of group dinners where we would all eat together at the same restaurant.  I figured the students might need some time to get away from the group and from the professors.  As it worked out, we ate all but one meal together as a family.  And that one meal that we were not all together, all but 4 joined us at the same table anyway.  Half of the group walked around with us all night when we went to Broadway at the Beach.  It was such a great group of students.  They are wonderful people.

Each day featured a hefty work schedule and shoveling sand all day is not easy.  I worked them hard every day just as I would in the sculpture studio.  But having fun is an important part of my philosophy of education.  I believe that creating fun in an educational environment is one of the major strengths of the Lander Visual Art Department and it's one of the reasons our department is so close knit.  On the beach we took breaks to toss the frisbee and cool off in the ocean.  We made our dinners fun by playing games and singing and making new friends.  I brought my surfboard on the trip so that students could give it a try.  No one knew how to surf but after I surfed just before dark one night, Luke was brave enough to give it a try.  The next day several others tried it and by the end of the week more than half had tried.  Adam got up a few times and was so proud of himself.  Changing people's moods, making people smile.  Happiness is crucial.  

On the last night we met in "The Spirit Room", a conference room offered to us by the hotel and showed the students a slideshow from the week.  Then we gave out silly awards.  I came up with a goofy award for each student, usually based on something funny that happened during the week.  Singletary spent some time at the local Dollar General buying cheap, goofball objects that she then spray painted metallic silver or gold in the alligator pit behind the Dollar General to use as "trophies".  We gave Singletary the "Best Mom Award" which was an actual trophy from the cheesy tourist trap and they presented me with a paper pirate hat signed by all the students.  It was all very fun.  

(Food Appendix)
Y'all know I love food.  G and I make lists of places we want to eat before we go on trips and we eat our way through town.  Last week we enjoyed the Litchfield Beach Fish House (crabcake sandwich and hushpuppies are a must), Habanero's (where we met singer songwriter Will Ness), The Grilled Cheese and Crabcake Company (where everything is amazing but I had the crabmelt with old bay fries and when G came down the next day she brought me a bbq brisket melt that was just as great), Graham's Landing (where our own Sabrina works and we enjoyed crab legs), Extreme Pizza at Broadway (the boar'der pizza with pulled pork and bbq sauce) and Moe's Original BBQ (pulled pork, ribs, baked beans and banana pudding).  My only regret is that I didn't get to take them all to Russell's.  Next year maybe.  

Singletary eats seafood only once per year.  She checked it off her list for 2017 at Graham's Landing.  Also, this is the only photo for 2017 with her eyes open.

Links for photos:




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