Collaborative Ventures Spark Creative Expression

Weir High School students pose with an art installation that they created under the direction of artist-in-residence Robert Villamagna. The sculpture’s I-beams represent Weirton’s steel industry.

Students at four area schools have created innovative art installations through a year-long collaboration with a quartet of regional artists.

The projects were developed through a partnership between Oglebay Institute and the Rural Arts Collaborative, an initiative that delivers hands-on, project-based learning programs to schools.

Chosen to participate during the 2018-19 academic year were Bellaire High School, John Marshall High School, Weir High School and Brooke Middle School. Each school was assigned an artist-in-residence for the year.

Working with documentary photographer Rebecca Kiger, Bellaire students compiled a collection of original photographs and written reflections. They published a magazine, The All-American Town, to showcase their work.

John Marshall students worked with artist and filmmaker Michael McKowen to create a site-specific, public art installation.

Guided by artist and former steelworker Robert Villamagna, Weir students created a large-scale art installation to celebrate Weirton’s steel heritage and envision the city’s future.

Brooke Middle students worked with artist Nancy Tirone to create mixed-media collages.

The Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation of Pittsburgh provided funding for all four projects. The Bellaire venture received additional funds from the EQT Foundation, while the John Marshall project had extra funding from the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation.

In 2017, Oglebay Institute received a two-year grant from the Benedum Foundation to offer teaching artist residencies through the Rural Arts Collaborative Arts Education Project in multiple rural schools throughout the institute’s service area.

The first year of the program featured collaborations at Wheeling Country Day School and Magnolia High School. The EQT Foundation provided a matching grant to implement the project in Wetzel County.

Danielle Cross McCracken, president of Oglebay Institute, said, “We are deeply grateful to the Benedum Foundation for positioning us to be a change agent in the arts community in area schools.

“Because of Benedum’s generosity, we can offer new opportunities for students, who may not be able to travel to our facilities in Wheeling, to connect with Oglebay Institute programs,” she added.

At Bellaire, students worked under the direction of Kiger and art instructor Megan Ritchea. “The goal of the project was to use photography as a vehicle for exploration, dialogue and creativity,” Kiger said.

Thirteen student photographers contributed to the project by documenting their lives and interests, using cell phones and/or point-and-shoot cameras. They were introduced to a variety of photographic work throughout the academic year.

In her artist statement about the project, Kiger said, “It is the hope that such an undertaking yields lifelong lessons. By engaging in the artistic process, one may experience the beauty inherent in mystery, the reward of risk-taking and the fruit of perseverance.”

She said the students’ concept for the magazine was influenced by the LBM Dispatch series from photographer Alec Soth. “LBM Dispatch is a serial journal of photos and writings that unfolds state by state, telling the stories of how Americans are living today,” she explained.

The mini magazine “intends to give each student a place to share a personal point of view,” Kiger said.

She added, “In order to bring the variety of voices together in a coherent tonal narrative, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, editor and curator Judy Walgren looked through hundreds of the students’ photographs. She masterfully wove together a selection of 52 images for the zine.”

Kiger’s photographs have been published in the New York Times, Vox, NPR and Time. She has contributed stills to documentary films, including the Oscar-nominated “Heroin(e).” This year, the Wheeling resident is beginning a three-year advanced mentorship program in visual storytelling.

“I enjoy sharing the craft of photography with youth, who I believe benefit by having as many supportive adults as possible in their lives,” she said.

John Marshall students used wood and cloth to create a visual expression of the cycle of life. Working with McKowen, they placed their outdoor art installation, titled “Passage,” on the school campus in Glen Dale.

“An exploration of the creative process, the project began with a feeling that evolved into an idea and then developed into something that is tactile and evocative,” he explained. “The physical work is inspired by the Land Art movement of the 1960s and ’70s as well as the work of the Adena culture that once occupied Marshall County.”

McKowen, who is curator of exhibitions at Oglebay Institute’s Stifel Fine Arts Center, said, “It has been a joy to spend time with the students and get to know them as human beings. I looked forward to every opportunity I had to sit and create with this group.

They are fearless, passionate and resourceful and they have taught me much about art and life.”

His artwork has been seen in group and solo exhibitions, while his films have been screened in numerous festivals. McKowen has more than 25 years of experience as a professional designer and artisan for theater, film and events.

The Weir students’ art installation represents the past and potential future of their hometown of Weirton.

Villamagna, retired assistant professor of art at West Liberty University, guided students through brainstorming sessions to determine the direction of the project. Students took the concepts and emotions they expressed and transformed them into art.

The sculpture includes several 8-foot I-beams that represent Weirton’s steel industry and incorporates a variety of media such as wood, metal and painted surfaces.

In a project description, students wrote: “What you see before you are I-beams that helped build our city up when steel was the booming material of the future. We’ve wrapped these I-beams in the logos of Weirton’s past businesses to show the change of the economy over the life of our town. We started this exploration in the prosperous times of the ’50s and ’60s when our steel mill was the backbone of our city.

“We observed that as steel became more popular, other countries and areas saw the potential in our productions and flooded the market with cheaper, more accessible steel. This, in turn, led to companies seeking outside sources for their materials and crippling the growth in our community. We represented this history by decreasing the number of logos on each beam as they stand from left to right.”

The students concluded, “However, we want the viewer to note the positive within our installation — that today we can see our city coming full circle to what, we hope, will become a new and brighter future for Weirton. “

Villamagna resided in Toronto and Weirton during his childhood and worked at Weirton Steel for 13 years. He has lived in Wheeling for the past 24 years.

As an artist, he is well known for his assemblage, metal, paper and mixed-media collages. He was named the 2016 West Virginia Artist of the Year and was inducted into the Wheeling Hall of Fame in 2017.

He joined the West Liberty faculy in 1996. Although recently retired, he continues to serve as curator of the university’s Nutting Gallery.

At Brooke Middle, 234 students — the entire seventh grade — worked with Tirone and art teachers Barbara Albaugh and Ginny Mancuso to create mixed-media collages.

“Students used simple supplies that were not costly,” Tirone said. “The power of the collages came from the students’ choices and compositional decisions. We all had the exact same supplies, yet no two collages are alike.”

The visiting artist related, “No sketching or planning was done before starting to work on the collages. Not knowing how the collage would look when completed added to the fun and mystery of the project.”

She commented, “For me, it was fascinating to see the process of creating the collages, to see the thinking and choice-making going on among the students. I saw them surprise themselves with their artwork. I saw them willingly start and then keep going until a moment came when their collage began to take shape and they saw something in it. I enjoyed their excitement and their willingness to try this process in good faith.”

Tirone served as an associate professor of art at West Liberty University for 37 years.

Her art interests include two-dimensional mixed-media collage and photography. Her work has been exhibited both locally and nationally in juried exhibitions.


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