When campuses began to close, COVID-19 presented an especially daunting challenge for art classes. Many wondered how teachers would keep students engaged when they did not have a canvas or a pottery wheel at home. Studio Art teacher and Program Coordinator Lauren Cunningham found a solution for her Sculpture students involving an item typically reserved for removing food from between teeth: toothpicks. This humble material is proving to be a success with Cunningham's students, and it even led to a Chicago-based toothpick artist, Wayne Kusy, guest lecturing in Cunningham's online Sculpture class.
(Top left to bottom right) Henry Odom '21, Alex Vermeil '20, Preston Herrold '21, and Wayne Kusy during his class visit, showing the students a dog he made out of toothpicks.
Thursday night, March 12, on the eve of campus closure, Cunningham delivered a grocery bags full of supplies to each of her Sculpture students. Each bag included 4,000 toothpicks.
For the last four weeks, students have been honing their toothpick-sculpting skills through increasingly complex projects. Their first assignment was to build three basic, geometric forms. Next, students constructed a miniature windmill based on a design by the Guinness World Record toothpick artist Stan Munro. For their final project, students are creating toothpick sculptures of their own designs.
Toothpick forms by (left to right) Jack Schaefer '23, Sydney Smith '23, and Bella Fayad '21
Bella Fayad '21 with her toothpick windmill
One advantage of virtual learning is the ease of connecting with professionals near and far. On Thursday, April 9, Sculpture students were joined in their classroom video chat by Wayne Kusy, a toothpick sculptor best known for his to-scale replicas of historic ships such as the Titanic. During his class visit, Kusy showed students pictures of his current project, the SS United States, and explained his process.
Students overall were impressed: "The ships are more complex than they look." Gloria Flowers '20 commented. "They looked so realistic," Bella Fayad '21 added, "I could barely even tell that they were toothpicks."
Cunningham initially worried that teenagers might find toothpick sculptures too tedious, but the students have taken to the process with interest and enthusiasm: "I think they are discovering they have the patience and focus that this medium requires." Most of all, Cunningham is grateful for the comfort her classes provide her students in an otherwise stressful time. "I feel blessed that I am able to do that for my students."
In a recent class survey, the majority of Cunningham's Mixed Media students agreed with the statement, "Making art relaxes me while I am in quarantine," and a majority reported that their parents are more interested in their artwork now that they are completing their projects at home. One parent summed it up in a recent email exchange with Cunningham: "Your class is a great break from the computer."