At Large in Ballard: Counting the fish
Although I pass their playground almost daily until last week I had only been on the grounds of St. Alphonsus Parish School twice in the last quarter century – if buying a Boy Scout Christmas tree even counts. I see the students in their uniforms shopping after school with their parents, but the school itself seems to be hiding in plain sight between its church on 15th NW and residences to the east.
Then something changed, that I hope will change for everyone in Ballard. Poles of colorful fish appeared in the planters planted as part of the East Ballard Community Association’s “Planting Partnerships on 14th Avenue NW” project. Like exotic escapees the fish, three per pole, three poles per planter, seemed to deliver a message from St. Alphonsus School, saying, “We are here.”
The parish school was founded in 1907; long before 15th NW became such a built-up thoroughfare. Likewise 14th Avenue NW has struggled to reclaim its residential charm behind so many businesses. East Ballard Community Association (EBCA) organizers Dawn Hemminger and Shannon Dunn paid a visit to the school and its new principal Maureen Reid. They saw all the art within its wall and asked, “Would your students be interested in making art for our project?” Artwork dangles from the ceiling, covers the hallways and draws your eye deeper into the detail of a cross in the main office that is comprised of individual drawings of flowers.
Maureen Reid arrived as an interim principal and quickly realized that although St. Alphonsus with its pre-school and K-8 program was a wonderful community in itself; there was not much interaction with the greater community. Having hosted a forum on homelessness she was already looking for ways for the Catholic school to extend its principle of giving to outside of its wall and fenced playground. Ultimately funded in part by a Neighborhood Matching Grant, ebca’s project specified working with the school. In the art room the teacher had stashed rolls of the original vinyl blinds that had finally been replaced with shades, not able to throw them away. The journey of the fish had begun long before they were visible.
Art teacher Susan Ozubko gets 45 minutes a week with the K-8 classes, some 200 students, marrying academic requirements to elements of art by way of curriculum that allows for sculpture, hand-building and painting. Despite a long history in fine arts, graphic design, photography and teaching, the 11-year St. Al’s teacher had never been part of a public art project. She took the students along with her every step of the way, “It was a wonderful teaching tool, plus a relevant project rather than ‘just art.’” The teacher and students all learned that creating public art, that has to withstand elements and suit an entire committee, is a process filled with problem solving.
How would Ozubko choose a limited number of artworks from 200 students? Once it was decided they would create fish to mount on poles, what material would they be? The first prototypes were too big. Making them in metal proved too time consuming, and too sharp. Ozubko literally looked around her art room for inspiration; she has a passion for reusing materials. She saw the rolls of vinyl and decided to trace a fish and cut it. The vinyl cut well. She painted it in acrylics and put it in her garden as a test. It passed.
A few big fish became more small fish, allowing for the work of more artists, painting each side and decorating with wire and buttons. Over lunch hours a group of older students provided quality assurance, and stapling. Nearing installation Ozubko realized there was nothing that identified them as made by students at St. Alphonsus. Almost as an afterthought, like curling the ribbon on a gift, the students added the school and personal messages on the poles. In shapes and colors that would never be otherwise found in the nature, the fish are flying, nine per planter along four blocks of 14th Avenue NW.
The fish were installed on a Saturday in April by students during a street clean-up day, harbingers of spring and a new chapter in the relationship between St. Al’s and the community. A woman found her way to the discrete entrance to deliver the message, “I live on 14th and I want to thank the art teacher.”
Not only have the neighbors noticed but now the students and teachers look at creations out in the neighborhood. “I count them every day,” a student told her art teacher. “I do too,” Mrs. Ozubko replied. They look for their own fish, all the fish, counting to make sure they are all still there. The fish have breached the gates between the inside and the outside at St. Alphonsus beginning a journey that will make it more a part of the community than it has been in years. Count on it.