For some Methow Valley students thoughts of Christmas came even earlier than usual this year, as they carved blocks and made prints to be displayed on an evergreen tree on the Ellipse in President’s
Park (the grounds surrounding the White House) in Washington, D.C.
Each year, the National Christmas Tree Experience features one national Christmas tree and 56 smaller trees, each representing a US state or territory. The trees are decorated with ornaments designed and created by an artist or group from that state or territory. This year, Methow Arts was selected by Arts WA (the Washington State Arts Commission) to facilitate the creation of ornaments to represent Washington State.
Although Methow Arts works closely with professional artists to promote and support their work, the cornerstone of our mission is our arts education program in schools, so when the invitation to create ornaments came, we knew we wanted to involve students in the project.
Working through Methow Valley Elementary School’s After School Art Club was an appealing option for a variety of reasons and the decision proved to be a good one, as the ten girls participating in Art Club in October (Lucy Collier, Ruby Culpsmith, Keira Dainwood, Hollis Johnson, Mia Libby, Teague Monahan, Layla Mortland, Audrey Roman, Camille Roman, and Gretta Schumacher) fully immersed themselves in the project, lending all the creativity and dexterity they had to bear toward their artwork.
Working under the guidance of Methow Arts teaching artist Bruce Morrison, the 3rd -5th grade artists examined real plants and sketched images of leaves, grasses, and flowers native to the Methow Valley watershed. They then learned how to carve linoleum blocks and make prints.
Says Morrison about the student artists, “Going into this project, I didn’t anticipate how much skill the students had. Their ability to draw and carve was quite surprising.” He adds, “Some of them even had previous block printing experience, which we were able to build on.”
Morrison has substantial block printing experience himself, but most of his work is in wood; these students were carving a softer block material. He nods to veteran teaching artists Laura Gunnip and Emily Post, who for years have facilitated the annual Fishing Day block printing project. “Their advice was invaluable,” he says. “They are the masters.”
Morrison also points to Classroom in Bloom as a valuable asset to this project. “Every day before we started drawing and carving we’d run through the garden to harvest materials to use as inspiration,” he says. Morrison notes that real, natural materials serve as much better models for artwork than field guides. “The textural quality of leaves, the subtlety of color—that can only be appreciated in the real thing,” he says, adding that the timing of the project — October — lent itself well to collecting leaves and grasses.
The finished prints were encased in plastic globes (as are all the ornaments for the National Christmas Tree Experience) and shipped off to the National Park Service, which coordinates the installation. Due to the size of the globes, the project imposed fairly rigid constraints on the art. Each print needed to be 3.5” tall and 6” wide, and two successful prints needed to be made on the same piece of paper for each globe. That’s a tough order in block printing, where the quality of each print is variable with the amount of ink and pressure applied. “There were intense constraints on dimensions and execution,” says Morrison. “It required everyone to step up their game. And they did. I think everyone was happy with the end result.”
The trees are viewed by more than 250,000 visitors each year. This year, those visitors will get a little glimpse into the natural world of the Methow Valley through the block prints of the plants that surround us and the eyes of the young artists in our midst.