Carving Their Own Way
How does a school tell its story of community in a way that inspires and enlightens generations to come? Reverend Cathy Gibbs had an idea. To celebrate the school’s 150th anniversary in 2017, she decided to act on her longstanding vision for a wood carving on the front of the Chapel’s altar. And she had a very particular focus for how the process would unfold.
“I wanted the students to design it,” she says. “The altar will be a teaching tool for future generations, so it was really important that current students be involved.”
With this emphasis in mind, Rev. Cathy asked Dorothy BOYLEN Caldwell ’62 and her husband Tom Caldwell to sponsor the project. The Caldwells are passionate supporters of BSS with two granddaughters currently at the school – Faith, Class of 2021, Trinity, Class of 2018 – and a third, Riley, who graduated in 2014.
“We were thrilled to be asked,” says Mr. Caldwell. The altar will have a lasting impact on young people by jogging their minds to think about reaching beyond themselves. It’s a wonderful project.”
From there, Rev. Cathy contacted the Ontario Wood Carvers Association. BSS art teacher Ellen Wright joined the project and invited students to participate. A group of ten formed and began meeting on Tuesdays at lunch in the Middle School Art Room.
“Our plan was to have Rev. Cathy summarize some of the stories from the Bible while the girls sketched,” recalls Ms. Wright. “But they had trouble coming up with images.” Faced with a stalled process, Rev. Cathy changed directions and started reading stories to the girls directly from the text, such as the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Easter story. The language in its original form had an electrifying effect.
“Images just starting popping up in my mind,” remembers Grade 10 student Kattly Li. “It was the same for everyone. We were drawing so much. There were big pieces of paper everywhere.”
Ms. Wright and Rev. Cathy were stunned when they reviewed the images the girls produced. “It was not what I expected at all,” recalls Rev. Cathy. “I had some themes in mind, but the girls keyed in on images of light like the Star of Bethlehem and the light of the resurrection. Light is such an important image in Christianity and in all faiths. It was a perfect theme.”
Soon after that, the professional carvers came to BSS and gave the girls a chance to try their hands at it. The experience was transformative. “It was so fun,” recalls Kattly. “And it totally changed the way we saw the images – like how do you represent flames or shadows in three dimensions?”
With their new understanding of carving in mind, the girls began creating a seven-foot mock-up of the three-panel altar by cutting out images and organizing them into a cohesive story. When they finally
hung their draft in the Chapel, it was eye opening. “We saw that it didn’t quite work,” says Grade 11 student Katie Rockburn. “The images were too small and there were too many of them.”
That moment stands out for Ms. Wright as an example of the real-world learning the project captured. “It was amazing watching them work through problems. They were accountable for creating a design the carvers could work with, and they had to do it together. They learned so much.”
After persevering through several drafts, the girls arrived at a clear vision of the stories they wanted on the left and right panels, but their concept of illustrating BSS students in the centre panel stymied them – until the carvers made a few helpful suggestions. “They recommended an image of a BSS girl coming out of the light,” recalls Rev. Cathy. “So we took their idea and suggested 12 girls of different ages and cultures, just like the 12 disciples.”
Katie sees the image as a perfect reflection of the BSS community. “The altar shows what BSS stands for,” she says. “It’s our light shining into the future and a vision of the type of people we are and the ideas we have.”
With the final images clarified, the carvers are on track for the altar to be revealed in the fall of 2016, after the girls spend a day in the summer doing some of the actual carving. Looking back over the various steps involved, the enormous value of the learning stands out. “It’s amazing what happens when you let the kids take the lead,” says Ms. Wright. “When you honour their learning and believe they are competent and capable, the results are magic.”
The altar will be an important addition to the Chapel that tells the story of the entire BSS community as well as the journey of the young artists themselves.
By Warren Lang
Warren Lang, M.Ed. is co-owner of the freelance writing company Sumner & Lang.