From art to Zen with Interlochen's Comparative Arts students

  • Comparative Arts students perform during Ensō.

  • Fourth graders from Pathfinder and Interlochen elementary schools watch the Interlochen Arts Academy Comparative Arts presentation, Ensō.

  • Interlochen Instructor of Math and Physics Taoufik Nadji does a presentation during Ensō.

  • Comparative Arts students at Ensō.

[Editors note: This story originally appeared in the Nov./Dec. 2015 edition of Crescendo Magazine.]

Earlier this month, Tink Emily Baker, a senior in the Comparative Arts department at Interlochen Arts Academy, found herself in the lobby of the Harvey Theatre discussing the art and symbolism inherent in both Islamic and neo-Judaic religious icons with roughly a dozen elementary school students. The students stared up at her in silence, either deeply engrossed in her explanations or mesmerized by her short cropped hair of blue, green and yellow.

A group of about 100 students from Pathfinder and Interlochen elementary schools traveled to Interlochen to view a new art installation created by Baker and her classmates in the school’s Comparative Arts department. Titled Ensō, a reference to the Zen circle, the installation was a 15-minute-long collaboration between actors, art, spoken word and symbolism.

“Our students here at Interlochen are very proud of this showpiece,” said Nicola Conraths Lange, Interlochen’s director of Comparative Arts. “We have been working on it all semester, and it reflects our conversations about imagery, philosophy and practices from the world’s religions, and how these elements appear in art.”

Philosophy and imagery of religious practices may seem like high-level concepts for fourth graders, but not according to Matt Drost, fourth grade teacher of science and math at Pathfinder elementary school. “It’s always good for students to see the bigger picture,” says Drost. “Whether that be the bigger picture at Pathfinder, or in education, their community or the region in general. They get to see that there’s always something more, something different.”

Lange agrees. “We are hoping that this installation will show our young guests how culture from around the world can be incorporated in school and expressed in art,” she adds. “Art, education and understanding, after all, are important parts of the growing process, and the world could use as much understanding as possible.”

“I think this is a great opportunity for the students to experience another way of looking at an idea, and another way of interpreting and expressing it,” added Drost.

Ensō was inspired by Interlochen’s chosen theme for the year, “Light.” Lange said students in Comparative Arts explored the theme through the art of sacred spaces from around the world, and found many parallels between these places, rituals and religions. This exploration inspired them to create Ensō, which symbolizes harmony, the universe, nothingness and enlightenment.

Back at the Harvey, the bright-haired Baker ushered students into Harvey’s large, black-walled theatrical cube, and the Comparative Arts students introduced themselves to their young guests now crossed-legged on the floor. After a brief explanation on the Light theme, the students introduced Taoufik Nadji, Interlochen’s instructor of physics and mathematics, who boggled dozens of minds with a laser light show. In between “Oooooos” and “Ahhhhhhs,” Nadji explained how light can be destroyed or combined when wavelengths are altered, and splayed a dazzling green Milky Way of light across the theater’s ceiling. Students gasped, pointed and talked to one another, all gawking with choruses of “Whoa!”

That display, showing the impact of light on our senses and cognitive processes, is what Light and Ensō are all about. In many cultures, Light can be a centerpiece of philosophy, religion and art. It inspires, calms, illustrates and encourages, spreading across languages and politics in ways that few other physical properties do.

Pathfinder teacher Drost mentioned how his students had just finished up on a physics unit, studying the properties of light, and that soon what they had learned there and seen here would be combined into a project. “December 15th we’ll be having our culminating project with the Interlochen students. It’s led by the Interlochen students, and so they’re really vested in it. It’s much more productive than me just assigning a poster project or something.”

And how. Complementing his students in-class studies, Ensō was illustrating international artistic techniques that utilized mathematics, including geometric patterns known as tessellation, prevalent in Islamic art. Passages from the Torah and Quran emphasized the theme of light, and original poems inspired by the Japanese tanka form were performed. Including these elements into any elementary classroom would be a challenge, but a wonderful way to emphasize how light affects us on a daily basis.

As the IAA students took their places, the lights dimmed. Even that simple change brought silence to the room. The performance piece began with small candles lit in a circle; colored lights from decorative Islamic luminaries hung high above casting shadows around the room. Soon soft flute music drifted in to complete a tranquil and meditative mood, and another young artist, Maggie Shepherd, began to slowly pull a yard rake through the sand of a large zen garden.

It was obvious Ensō was no typical performance, nor was it standard fare for fourth graders. More than a play, poster or finger-painting might do, this was was a demonstration of light as volume; as an emotional catalyst; a signal and a part of both solid and spiritual representationalism. It, like many of the Comparative Art projects and programs, combined an array of fine arts disciplines with academic principles, allowing the visiting elementary students to see a balanced presentation of art and mainstream education.

The young guests watched, unsure of what to expect, pointing at light installations; involuntarily mimicking the movements of the actors; listening to passages in Arabic and giggling at the foreign words.

And after 15 minutes, the lights came up to some applause, and Lange was thanking the blinking students for coming. They stood, stretching, reflecting, talking about what they had seen and heard. “I liked the stars he showed us.” “I liked the lights.” “I didn’t get it.”

“Well, you either get it or you don’t,” one observant child replied. Which is as insightful a critique as it is simple. As is the case with many art forms, like jazz, interpretive dance or a Jackson Pollock painting, it’s meaning or even its beauty is not so much in what you see or hear, but in what you feel. And sometimes that feeling has to have a little light shone on it.

—Scott R. Miller, Interlochen Center for the Arts editor/copywriter

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