Visiting Artist Creates Mural of Chesterton and Inspires Students

Chesterton Tribune, 12/1/2009


    The story was about fear and about new beginnings. It was also a story about keeping the memory of loved ones alive and life’s sometimes pleasantly odd coincidences.


    As visiting artist Jeff Hagen told his real-life story, some of the Chesterton Middle School art students were busy drawing an image depicting what he had just said. Others sat still, waiting for just the right time for an artistic thought to emerge and capture on paper.

    The project that Hagen and the students carried out on two days in mid-November is now part of a larger project that the whole community can share in.


    This Saturday, an exhibition of paintings by the CMS art students will open at Valparaiso University’s Christopher Center. The water color paintings by the 7th and 8th graders originated with the pencil drawings that the students created as Hagen first told them his story. Different scenes created by the students will be paired up with text from Hagen’s yet-to-be-published book.


    Also on display will be another work in-progress by Hagen: Working sketches for a large, triptych watercolor painting of Chesterton. Once complete, the approximately nine-foot long work will be on display at CMS, but will also be a traveling piece loaned out to various sites in the community.


    The two projects -- the Chesterton mural and the student art exhibit -- were the result of an Acorn grant that CMS art teacher Jody Nix was awarded through the Duneland Education Foundation. Nix, who has worked with Hagen before on a student art project, secured the $2,500 grant to bring Hagen back to the Duneland Schools as an artist-in-residence, working directly with students on the book project as well as leaving behind a mural of Chesterton.


    Hagen, a New York Times best-selling author, is a Wisconsin native who has written and illustrated a number of children’s books and humorous journals and who works extensively with schools in the Midwest as a visiting artist. A former travel writer for the Milwaukee Journal, Hagen spent several weeks interviewing people in Chesterton in order to get ideas for his Chesterton painting, which he has been working on while living in a home in the dunes. One Friday afternoon, he came to the Chesterton Tribune’s offices seeking some information about the downtown buildings and the town in general.


    He said his favorite form of art is that of storytelling -- and it’s mutual feeling. “I want to hear people’s stories,” he said.


    What people in Chesterton told him over these past few weeks is reflected in the painting: Chesterton is influenced greatly by the nearby presence of Lake Michigan and the Indiana Dunes, both of which are depicted fluidly along the bottom of the painting. The trains that run through the heart of the town are steeped in history -- and a historic passenger train snakes through Hagen’s painting with a feeling of excitement. The buildings in and around the downtown are stories of the people, present and past. Peggy Sue. The Chesterton Tribune. The Smith Building and the old light at its top that was used as a signal for the town marshal.


    The painting is expected to be done in the same style as other Hagen works: Light and colorful, with a touch of abstraction, distortion and whimsy, but with plenty of reference to history. But while other Hagen paintings make the city landscape the dominant image, the Chesterton painting is a horizontal work, with the natural element of water and dunes taking a prominent place in the foreground and the human influence emerging more in the distance.


    As Hagen put it, he wanted to capture “the magic of Chesterton.”


    The Chesterton painting will be unveiled as a work in progress to the public at the VU exhibit this Saturday. Hagen is also donating two of paintings for use in a silent auction, with proceeds benefiting the CMS art department.


    But Hagen emphasized that the focus of Saturday’s exhibit isn’t about him, but about the art by the CMS students.


    The student project emerged in each art class on two days in mid November. Hagen began by reading the students his 1995 “Hiawatha Passing,” a story about a boy who, unable to sleep, watched in wonderment the people passing through on a night-time passenger train. The story was based on his own experience as a boy. As he told the students, the best stories are those that involve “something that comes from the heart. Something that happens to you.”


    He then proceeded to tell another real-life story, this one set in his adult years at a time when he was dealing with the loss of several family members and a friend in just one season. He was at his remote cottage in Wisconsin and decided to plant five apple trees, one in memory of each person who had just died. One night he ventured outdoors, curious by the howl of a coyote close to his cottage.


    As he told the story, sometimes in hushed, suspenseful tones as he recalled being closely followed by something unknown in the dark of night, he urged the students to pick one or more images -- even to close their eyes if it would help -- and to start sketching.

    “If it’s good or bad, draw it,” he said.


    The story that emerged was a touching, inspirational tale about loss, love, fate and new beginnings. When he was done telling the story, he asked the students if they thought the story would make for a good book. Practically everyone responded yes. And that’s what will happen: Hagen plans to turn his story into a published book. For Saturday’s exhibit, the project focuses not just on Hagen’s words, but on the art the students created as they heard the story for the first time. The exhibit is aptly titled, “The Art of Storytelling.”


    After making their quick sketches in class, the students later transferred their images to more finished watercolor paintings. Teacher Jody Nix said some of the paintings will be selected for the VU exhibit, with scenes to match the text. Other paintings will be displayed in a separate exhibit at Westchester Public Library.


    Nix planned to take the project to another level by having the students make their own books, with handmade paper, by researching facts about Chesterton and writing and illustrating their work.


    •”The Art of Storytelling” will open at a reception at 4 p.m. Saturday at the Valparaiso University Christopher Center Lobby, located next to the VU Chapel. The exhibit will be on display at VU through the end of December.


    Posted 12/1/2009


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