Ancient art, young artists

Students help create fresco at middle school

Posted: Monday, May 15, 2000

A dozen musicians are jamming non-stop in the hall at Floyd Dryden Middle School, thanks to Juneau artist Charles Rohrbacher and a team of apprentice fresco artists.

The 4- by 8-foot painting of a Juneau jam session is a fresco, an ancient technique where pigment is brushed on to a thick layer of wet plaster. The fresco was designed by Rohrbacher, who worked with the students as part of the Artists in the Schools program.

For the past two weeks, the hallway at Floyd Dryden has been an art studio, with drawings, materials and tools set up. Images of Michelangelo's famous fresco in the Sistine Chapel and Mexican muralist Diego Rivera's work are taped up alongside Rohrbacher's many sketches. A number of students watched the process, and many participated off and on. Rohrbacher said some came every day after school.

``It's sweet,'' said seventh-grader Carl Lundquist. ``We pretty much helped with everything.''

The apprentices ground the paint pigments, mixed slaked lime to make plaster and participated in every step of the process -- from mounting the plywood backing to the wall and spreading the plaster to painting the pigments on the wet plaster.

Sixth-grader Evan Thibodeau was drawn by the opportunity to practice art and work with Rohrbacher, known locally for his icon paintings.


Art in progress: Artist Charles Rohrbacher gestures toward the fresco he and students are working on.


``We're working together like a team,'' he said. ``He teaches us how to do it, and then lets us do it.''

Artist Kathy Sievers of Hillsboro, Ore., who worked on frescos with Rohrbacher in Paris and at the Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon, came up to assist on the project. She brought all the tools, and the slaked lime, bagged up as luggage from Oregon.

``It's really the same process that's been used for thousands of years, from the ancient Greeks to the Renaissance,'' said Floyd Dryden art teacher Sophia Brubaker.

Rohrbacher said he chose the jam session as a theme because it shows people coming together. He was inspired by the recent Alaska Folk Festival and spent hours sketching groups of musicians playing together. Some of the musicians, such as Fairbanks flutist Lynn Basham and Juneau piper Henry Hopkins, are recognizable. Others are composites.

``It symbolizes us, at the school, and the community of Juneau itself,'' Brubaker said. ``I think he was really inspired by how the folk festival brings people from all over Juneau and all over the state. It's not a painting of the folk festival, but of the people coming together.''

When Brubaker, a teacher with 20 years experience, came to Juneau from Minnesota to teach at Floyd Dryden last fall, she was asked to oversee the Artists in the Schools project.

She was intrigued by a wood block print in the school library, a piece Rohrbacher created when he last taught as an Artist in the School at Floyd Dryden 10 years ago. The other teachers supported the fresco idea, and Rohrbacher was commissioned.

A $1,600 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities was matched by the middle school to fund the project, Brubaker said.

Rohrbacher works as the director of religious education for the Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary. As an artist, he is best known for his work as an iconographer, an artist who paints saints and religious figures. Rohrbacher's paintings and stained glass works are in churches across the country, including the Catholic church and the Russian Orthodox church in downtown Juneau.

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