Sights on Site: It’s Monumental

Sights on Site, Friends Select’s annual exhibition showcasing site-based student artwork from all divisions, turned its attention to Philadelphia businesses and organizations last spring. The program’s 2021 theme, It’s Monumental, focused on the role of art in public spaces, as students from second to twelfth grade explored the topic of public monuments and created pieces in different mediums, from drawing and sculpture to digital virtual reality. “Creating art is a great way for the students to learn about and interact with the institutions that surround us at Friends Select,” said Deborah Caiola, upper school art teacher and art department chair. “The artwork students display through Sights on Site expresses many experiences and perceptions of the same place or idea.” For their projects, upper school art students were encouraged by Deborah and teachers Zoë Blatt and Lynda Greenwade P’03, ’12 to interpret monuments through mandalas, wire sculptures, personal totems, and 3D models.
With the COVID-19 pandemic still a factor in planning an in-person exhibition, director of city curriculum Margaret Smith suggested various alternatives. “Eventually, we decided that the exhibit should mimic the theme,” Margaret said. “That the art should be public, visible outdoors, and should be spread throughout the city rather than limited to any single site.” Margaret contacted local, independent businesses throughout the city to host posters in a public display; the response was overwhelming, with over 150 businesses committing to the exhibition. “Over and over, I had store owners tell me that they wished more students had a chance to do the types of assignments that were a part of this project,” she added.
Middle school art teacher Fred Kogan was moved to create a contemporary monument design project for eighth grade students in response to the lack of representation in city monuments of people of color, women, LGBTQI persons, and other marginalized community members. He inspired his class to focus on an idea or cause they were passionate about to connect to local monuments in a personal way. “Students felt honored to see their works of art displayed throughout the city. Sights on Site allows students to see themselves as artists worthy of a professional artistic experience,” Fred shared. “This type of experience gives students the courage and passion to continue to study the visual arts.” 
Dan Deslaurier, lower school art teacher, instructed second graders to design a monument that illustrated how the simple action of “One” can create change, inspired by the children’s book I Am One: A Book of Action and the life and work of the lower school Artist Study subject, Elijah Pierce. “I’m a big believer in celebrating our student artists’ work at every opportunity; it is a public affirmation of the creativity that dwells within each of us. And I’m lucky to be part of a team that feels the same,” Dan said. “Our visual arts department devotes a great deal of time and mindful thought to our student art exhibits, from pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade. It is a vital part of our job to prepare our student artists for the whole of life, whether visual arts becomes their life’s work or a passionate pastime.” 
Lauren Beslow P’31 saw firsthand the impact of the project on her son Jonah, whose artwork was displayed at Artist and Craftsman Supply on Market Street. She said, “Jonah had the opportunity to tell the employees about his piece, and he was thrilled to see his work hanging. It was a great experience for him.”
As Sights on Site continues to evolve, Deborah envisions students having input in the planning. “I hope the program will continue to grow organically, with more student agency, from picking the buildings, creating the assignments, and hanging the shows,” she said. “I would also love to find a way to incorporate other disciplines and can imagine ways they would partner well with Sights on Site.”