“It was about an hour after sunset. The Catlin Gabel campus was completely still all around. But yet, nothing was still at all. Not even the tiny bright green fern sprouting from rich soil. The wind went crazy and there were way too many bird calls around to keep track of, and yet not enough. Rain twinkled down, each droplet for itself. They fell until they landed, then sat there perking up waiting for others to join. Life was surrounded by life.”
And so begins our adventure story, a saga of wild creatures and magic on the Catlin Gabel campus as written by the Adventure Story Experiential Days group. Our story is a product of and was inspired by four very full days exploring the Catlin woods and other wild places, talking to other artists about what inspires them, and learning new skills like walking-stick carving and bookbinding.
Among the many traditions that the Catlin Gabel campus unites around annually (Harvest Festival, Spring Festival, St. George and the Dragon play, Revels…), our week of experiential learning at the end of March is always well-anticipated by all. Each division has their own iteration of the week- Wonder Week, Experiential Days, Breakaway, and Winterim- but all are united around a common purpose: halt work on “academic” study and spend four days immersed in an experiential endeavor of your choice, whether it’s baseball, cooking, traveling to Peru, or learning circus arts. Two years ago, I conceived and led a class about the book Wildwood; that was a wild success. And this year, Lisa and I delved deep into the arts of nature journaling and bookmaking. Though immersion into nature and creativity was certainly the goal of the class, we never would have guessed the depth that our adventurous girls would dive to explore themselves and the world around us.
Day One set the precedent of immersion into creative projects; the girls simultaneously carved and personalized their own walking sticks in the Woodshop and created paste papers with our visiting artist, Ruth. Ruth taught us all how create beautiful, textured paintings made from a combination of wallpaper paste and acrylic paint which was teased into beautiful designs with help from a variety of textured tools. These paintings later became the covers for our handbound books. We were also lucky enough to visit Mike (campus grounds supervisor) in his natural habitat. He gave us a tour of a most unlikely location on campus- the roof of the theater building! Standing thirty feet above the ground, we became birds or squirrels, inhabiting the tops of the trees. One girl wrote in her journal later that afternoon, “A bald eagle flew overhead after we all stood on the sunny rooftop. It was a glorious day and we felt as though we could walk out into the branches, right into someone’s living room. I feel like I became a giant!”
As the week went on, each adventurer became more and more immersed in her own creative spirit. We each found our own special spots down in the Catlin woods to observe, breathe, draw, sketch, and write. The girls embroidered their brown canvas “explorer satchels” we had given them, filled with a variety of explorer’s tools: waterproof notebook, watercolor pencils, magnifying glass, ruler, and more! And we all stitched, folded, glued, and pressed our way into becoming professional bookbinders of special, hardbound journals. During the long afternoons, some spent hours sketching with watercolor pencils. Others intricately folded paper into tiny little books, meant for tiny little stories. Others bound book after book after book. Some couldn’t get enough of their secret spots and begged to spend time some quiet time there listening to the birds.
Best of all, our week together gave us all time to think about the question, “Why create?” Why do humans spend hours upon hours drawing, writing, singing, dancing, sculpting, carving, and looking for the next inspiration? Some may say that art takes us out of our daily “to-dos” and into a space that is open and free of rules and expectations. It is a space where we can forget the world around us as we focus in on our projects. Sometimes we even forget that 11:30 means lunch time (oops!) It is a space where we can take unformed ideas from our busy brains and mold them into something tangible. It is a space where we discover what our hands can do and find pride in our own abilities. Our visit to the Sauvie Island studio of local author and artist Adrienne Keith was a reminder to pay close attention to inspiration. We were all inspired to create inspiration boards ourselves after seeing her whimsical garden and studio space. Art connects us to ourselves as creators but also to fellow artists in their own abilities to create and inspire us.
Experiential Days epitomizes Catlin Gabel’s core values, which have become my own: experiential learning, critical & creative thinking, spirit of inquiry, community and relationship-building, integrity, and inclusivity. It is a time to spend focused time in a small-group learning environment hands-in, hands-on, and joining hands. It becomes a time to make new friends and develop even deeper relationships with teachers. It is a time of personal exploration into new-found skills and interests, it is a time to ask important questions like, “why make art?” or “why go outside?,” and it is a time to recognize that learning can exist outside of the four walls of a classroom. And for some people, this becomes the best place to learn. At the end of a day or a week, when teachers and students don’t want to leave, when they say, “we haven’t gotten enough!” that’s when you know that the learning environment is right.
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