Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
March 23, 2007
DeKalb — Northern Illinois University’s Blackwell History of Education Museum always has shown its visitors the camera eye’s view of life in rural one-room schoolhouses.
Now it will present those memories from the perspective of modern-day children.
“Country School Memories,” an art exhibition that will feature 35 paintings of one-room schoolhouses created by Batavia elementary school students, will be on display from Saturday, March 31, through Sunday, April 15, in the museum located in the Learning Center of Gable Hall, east of Annie Glidden Road near the Chick Evans Field House.
An opening reception is scheduled from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Saturday, March 31.
The festivities will include remarks from Nancy Legner, art teacher at Louise White Elementary School in Batavia. Her talk is co-sponsored by the Division of Art Education in the NIU School of Art. Call (815) 753-1236 for more information.
“We wanted to get children involved in the museum,” said Connie Hansen, the museum’s education specialist and a longtime friend of Legner’s. “I gave Nancy a call – she has students in Batavia – and I wondered if they would be interested in visiting the schoolhouse. She said that maybe an art project would be a good thing for them to do.”
“What a great learning experience this was for them,” NIU alumna Legner said of the third-, fourth- and fifth-graders who participated. “Picasso said every child is an artist, and it’s so true. It’s so true.”
Legner began the five-week project last fall by showing her students “Rural School Journeys,” the DeKalb County Historical-Genealogical Society-produced book of black-and-white photographs of DeKalb County one-room schoolhouses.
The Sandwich resident and her students talked about the images, heard oral histories from people who attended one-room schools and discussed how daily life had changed through the decades.
Her old Sears-Roebuck catalogues offered examples of time-appropriate clothing, furniture and transportation.
And then work began.
“They all selected the schoolhouses they wanted to illustrate,” Legner said. “I gave them fairly large pieces of paper, a little under 18 inches by 24 inches, because I like to have my students work big. It’s more monumental and showy when it’s done.”
First, the children sketched their works with pencil and straight-edge rulers.
Later they dipped brushes into watercolors to paint their drawings, also using black and color Sharpies for some of the detail work. The markers add “some crispness” to the mixed-media pieces, she said.
The results enchanted Legner, the Illinois Elementary Art Educator of the Year for 2007. “They let their imaginations go,” she said. “Children express who they are through their art, and their own little unique personalities came out.”
Birds and butterflies flutter past clouds and barbed wire – “I explained that Mr. Glidden and Mr. Ellwood
invented barbed wire,” Legner said – while horses and even outhouses stand in the backgrounds.
Trees hold tire swings and drop acorns. Cobblestone paths lead to schoolhouse doors. Smoke rises from chimneys while flags wave above the gingerbread- and checkerboard-shingled roofs.
“Some have squirrels climbing up trees. Some girls are kneeling down in the grass, picking flowers. You can look inside some of the windows to see activities inside of the schoolhouse. You can see lunch pails underneath the potbelly stoves, and there are dunce caps,” she said.
“Some did fall scenes, with leaves falling down. Some did spring. One girl did winter, with children out in front of the schoolhouse making a snowman and throwing snowballs.”
Even the skies are striking.
“Instead of painting plain old blue skies, I stressed to experiment,” Legner said. “We have purple skies, pink skies, blue and green skies – it looks like a tornado could be coming. Some of them have swirly lines in the skies, like something van Gogh would have put in.”
Legner and the students frequently critiqued the works in progress, and the teacher hung many of the best paintings on the art room walls to motivate the students.
Afterward, the task of choosing only 35 for the Blackwell exhibition proved difficult.
“I had so many beautiful ones,” she said. “When these children take these home, they’re going to bring home masterpieces they can frame and preserve and show their children some day.”
But for Legner, who came to NIU for a master’s degree earned in 1978 and a master of fine arts degree completed in 1983, the project is a finale-of-sorts for her career in education and a fitting start to the next phase of her life.
She’s retiring this spring from nearly 24 years of teaching in the public schools to become a professional, exhibiting artist.
“Nothing could bring me more happiness than to get these paintings ready and mounted and take them to an art show. It’s such a good experience for the children to come and see their artwork at the museum. It gives you such a sense of joy to see the end results of such a very long and hard project,” Legner said.
“These children now see the whole evolution of the art making: the artist’s process from learning to thinking to planning to execution, getting it ready to frame and mount for exhibition, the opening reception and the press releases,” she added. “They got letters from the university inviting them to the reception, and they felt so special. It’s so good for their self-esteem.”
# # #