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Inspiring the Next Generation of Visual Artists
Megan Bard, Associate Director of Communications

Inspired by contemporary artist Pippa Dyrlaga, Rectory School art students dove into the papercutting project creating magical, and for one student award-winning, compositions.


They had three tools, two pieces of paper—one black and the other white—and an Exacto knife, to create a compelling piece that represented positive and negative space and showed their love for animals. With these tools in hand and inspired by contemporary artist Pippa Dyrlaga, Rectory School art students dove into the papercutting project creating magical, and for one student award-winning, compositions.

“It’s a concept that sounds simple and easy and then they try it, and they realize it can be kind of daunting,” said Rectory art teacher Judy Blakelock. “Yet, they chip away at it until they get to their final result and feel that sense of accomplishment. It’s exciting to teach them these abstract concepts and force them to play with them and figure it out until they have something. The only way to learn is to do it.”

Rowan working on her papercutting project.

When Rowan Lehmann ’23 entered her papercut octopus into the Woodstock Fair she was excited to share her creation, which she completed in Miss. Blakelock’s seventh-grade class. However, she didn’t expect for it to be recognized with a Judge’s Award, the top award in that category, and to later sell the composition to a man visiting from Los Angeles who was so taken by the piece that he offered to buy it on the spot.

“It’s a strange feeling to have someone want to buy your artwork and then take it home with him to California,” Rowan said recently reflecting on her accomplishment.

While surprised by the request to purchase the artwork, neither Miss. Blakelock nor Rowan’s mother, Lindsay Lehmann, was surprised by the recognition Rowan received.

There are several ways you can draw an octopus on paper, but the artist’s approach and understanding of space and how to set up the components of the cephalopod mean the difference between a boring versus interesting result.

Rowan L holding up her octopus drawing.

“Rowan quickly picked up on big concepts. She immediately understood the concept of that play of space and how you can set up the components of her octopus to create a dynamic composition. The way she arranged the tentacles, the way she added the little fish to the background really plays into the piece as a whole and what makes it strong. She took the skills that she knew and applied them. She nailed it on every part of that project every step of the way,” Miss. Blakelock said.

Early in the project, Rowan showed her mom what she was creating. “It was so good,” Lindsay said, remembering seeing it in stages and realizing that her daughter was creating something special.

“She picked it apart—she can be her own worst critic sometimes—but once she started to analyze it, she started to look at how she created this 3-dimensional shape by how she overlapped the tentacles and forced the brain to make up for the extra space she realized it was much better than she originally thought,” Lindsay said. “I think this gave her the confidence to try something new. She was so proud of herself. It’s the first time I saw her think that she’d created something that was good.”

“Rectory is a school where teachers feel comfortable trusting them with tools and supplies like this because it’s a more serious artistic work environment. The spaces at Rectory promote a sense of creativity and learning. There is a serious nature about the arts; it’s not just a craft class,” Lindsay continued.

When Miss Blakelock and Lisa Gould, an art and photography teacher, approach their visual arts classes they focus on teaching certain skill sets, techniques, topics, and concepts; however, how the lessons look are unique to each class and grade level.

“Personally, I want to emphasize creative thinking, the creative process,” Miss. Blakelock said. “Ultimately, most of these kids aren’t going to grow up to be artists, but in any job and any field you have to be able to think creatively and come up with different solutions. I want them to start to learn that here in these classrooms.”

There are no cookie-cutter projects with your result identical to the student next to you. The expectation is each will look at least slightly different once completed. For example, during self-portrait work, the students are to show that they understand basic facial proportions, but they can do that through traditional self-portraiture or through anime. Another example is teaching color by giving students paint swatches and then forcing them to mix colors to create a color match.

“They need to have options. I don’t want a fear of something to get in the way of them being creative or getting to the end goal. I don’t want them to be stopped,” she said.

The goal is also to make it so analyzing a piece of art or dissecting the artist’s technique is not intimidating.

“I think we use things like our artists as inspiration and analyze their work together. They should not be scared of that,” Miss. Blakelock said.

By introducing contemporary, working artists such as paper cutting artist Pippa Dyrlaga, painter Amy Sherald, who painted former First Lady Michele Obama’s official portrait, and graphic designer and painter Sho Shibuya, whose color field work depicted the sunrise in New York City over editions of the New York Times during early COVID-19 lockdowns.

“Visual art is its own language. It’s a language that you internalize and recognize how it will help influence, mold, and shape your perspective of the world. I incorporate different artists into the classroom. I want them to learn about these artists, be inspired by them, and find different perspectives,” Miss. Blakelock said. “You learn by looking, by analyzing, and then building on those blocks. If you ignore all that came before there are no blocks from which to build.”

Always a tinkerer and one not afraid to paint, paper mâché, or macrame for fun, Rowan said the Collins Art Barn provides the space where she feels like she can do pretty much anything.

“I love art spaces. There is so much to see and so much to do,” she said. At the moment, she’s inspired to paint sunsets with silhouettes of trees.

And sometimes students take that inspiration and create something that others want to hang on their wall. It was difficult for the Lehmann family to let go of Rowan’s octopus, but at the same time, it was an easy decision to support her with the sale.

“As her mom I didn’t want to let it go, but the confidence that she had in letting it go was worth more than the artwork itself. It made us so proud to see that confidence grow in her,” Lindsay said.

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