The question “What did you do this summer?” Is the topic of many a back-to-school essay. Forty area students will answer “I was a Blue Sky artist”. Community Voices producer Susan Byrnes follows the experience of a few of those students who participated in the Blue Sky Project, one of Dayton’s most unique summer arts programs. The results of their participation can be seen at the Blue Sky Project Final Exhibition, on display for Urban Nights, September 16th , at 8 North Main St. in downtown Dayton.
The Blue Sky Project is an international artist in residence program that links 40 Dayton area high school students with five visiting contemporary artists each summer. But Blue Sky is not an art education program. Instead, the students and professional artists collaborate in small groups; the knowledge, skills, and experience that each person brings become fundamental aspects of the work that’s created.
I followed the progress of artist Susannah Mira’s group as they created sculptures from a large stash of scrap materials from McMRF, the Montgomery County Material Reuse Facility.
"You're coming in to visit us at an interesting time because we've spent the past two weeks pretty much with a routine. So this whole group is really dedicated, but at the same time now we're also trying to envision what our pieces might look like in the exhibition space," says Susannah, explaining the group’s activities halfway through the project.
A collaborative process of art-making is often new to both the students and artists. This process has moved Susannah’s group away from their original project idea, into more uncertain territory. All the while they’ve been diligently gluing and sewing masses of circular foam material.
Blue Sky culminates in early August with a public exhibition of all the collaborative projects. The week before the show opens, the downtown Dayton exhibition space is alive with drilling, hammering, painting, dance rehearsals, and video and audio equipment installation. I find David and Keon from Susannah’s group helping to hang large assemblages of black, white, and silver foam pieces from the walls and ceiling. David has been through the final week’s push before, during his two previous summers with the program. Keon is experiencing it for the first time.
"It wasn't necessarily hard, but the repetitive action of the sewing, it was kind of tiring after a while knowing that you're going to come in and that's what you have to do for the whole day. But it's still pretty fun being in the group and seeing what you can do," says Keon.
On exhibition night, Blue Sky youth participants eagerly await people's response to their work. Several members of the Susannah's group stand together with family in the center of their installation space. They're surrounded by mountains of foam circles tumbling over walls, stacked up and suspended overhead. These carefully crafted forms represent many weeks of their summer and many hours that they spent together.
Following the exhibition, Susannah shared her observations of her group.
"I was really delighted to see the friendships form, you know between group members, because when I was thinking about coming to Blue Sky and working with young people, I was also thinking about how important interpersonal relationships, like friendships, were to me when I was making art when I was younger," Susannah says after the exhibition. "I think if anything, that's what they take from Blue Sky on the most basic level, is their friendships. I think what's most interesting for them is each other - way more exciting than the work we've made. They're fascinated with each other."
The next day, I spend a few final minutes with Susannah’s group as they prepare to spend their last Blue Sky afternoon cleaning the studio, saying goodbye.
"So the project we were supposed to make turned out to be something different," says Keon. "It was actually a good thing still because it was a little easier. We had more of an easy idea once we changed the project of exactly what we can do. I think that was the most surprising of all, changing the project that late with the exhibit and everything coming up and still getting it done in time."
"Like before during the summer, I just swam and messed with friends, just hung out a lot counting down the days until school goes back," says David. He now wishes that Blue Sky would keep going. "Because the age for Blue Sky was 14-17, and I'm turning 18 so it's my last year. My dad, he always says this is my last year of kid things because as soon as I start college classes in September I have to start studying a lot more, and I start working next week for my first job."
David says that Blue Sky has given him skills that he can translate into the workplace like teamwork and collaboration.
The Blue Sky exhibition will be on display for the last time tonight at the PNC Bank building, 8 North Main St., in downtown Dayton during Urban Nights, from 5-10pm. For more information on Blue Sky, visit blueskydayton.org.