Artist makes point with pencils
Sculpture skewers standardized testing, celebrates art in schools
Harriete Estel Berman's current installation in the Anita Seipp Gallery at Palo Alto's Castilleja School hangs like a colorful tapestry, gently swaying in the breeze and flickering in the light. A closer inspection, however, reveals that the curtain-like sculpture is made not of standard beads or fabric but pencils — rows upon rows of recycled pencils in various hues and sizes.
It stands about 12 feet high and 28 feet across but has the thickness of just one of those plentiful pencils. And its rocket-ship shape actually represents the bell curve used to measure student performance on standardized tests.
The artist's opinion on the role and impact of standardized tests in education is the inspiration behind the piece, titled "Pick Up Your Pencils, Begin," which is on display through the end of March.
Berman, a former Palo Alto resident who now lives in San Mateo, became concerned about the emphasis schools place on standardized testing while raising her now-grown children. Her son was in the first generation of California students to take the STAR test. Focusing so much on testing, she said, diverts invaluable time, funds and energy from encouragement of independent study, hands-on projects and the arts.
"Problem-solving skills and creative thinking are buzzwords in every school's mission statements, but I don't think there's anything that can teach those skills better than the arts," she said. "Arts have really been devalued in education."
And the way test results are organized into the bell-curve graph, broken into nine "stanines" with the majority of test takers placed in the middle segments and the lowest and highest scorers on the outskirts, is also damaging, she said.
"Everyone is put into these nine segments. They try and squeeze all the students into the center and then," she said in a mock-spooky voice, "they say the three stanines on each side 'deviate from the norm.' It just sounds bad."
For "Pick Up Your Pencils, Begin," Berman built the middle stanines out of standard pencils in classic yellow, representing the "average" students. The more colorful, less common pencils are to the sides. The farthest, least populated stanines are made up of black and white pencils to show that standardized testing is a polarizing issue, she said. "The students at the lowest and highest ends are the least served," she said.
Berman's son, who recently graduated from the University of California at Davis with a degree in mechanical engineering, helped design the piece's structure. Though it seems simple, she said she quickly realized the complexities of the task, such as the need to change the pencils' directions throughout so the balance and spacing would be right.
To hang the pencils, she and her student assistants painstakingly drilled each and every one and threaded them with monofilament fishing line. In the finished project, the zigzags of the pencil points form a pattern that adds to the tapestry-like look. Yardsticks, attached to the bottom for weight, underscore the idea of measuring students' academic performances.
"It came out even better than I imagined," Berman said, adding that the fishing line gives the surprising bonus of resembling graph lines.
The project is more than four years in the making. Just collecting the massive amount of pencils needed — Berman says she has "absolutely no idea" how many there are in total — took a year. She decided, in line with her eco-friendly style (she often works with recycled tin cans), that used pencils would serve her vision better than new ones, both for environmental and symbolic reasons.
"I wanted pencils that could have potentially taken standardized tests," she said.
After she sent out requests by email and fliers, people sent in pencils from all over the world. Some were "cute and collectable" and others well-worn or even chewed. Some of her favorites came with notes attached explaining the pencils' origins or with interesting observations.
"Something so mundane as a pencil can have an emotional connection," she said.
Berman said she's especially proud of how the piece works on both a macro and a micro level. The enormous bell curve is impressive to behold, but an up-close view, too, proves rewarding. The rows of varying pencils offer a treasure trove of material culture akin to an archaeological dig or patchwork quilt. A Halloween-themed pencil boasts festive ghost shapes, while a purple batch from Sequoia High School in Redwood City is decorated with a now-banished Cherokee mascot. Pencils advertising long-lost businesses and even the 1990 U.S. Census are on display, offering clues about how they were used and the lives of those who used them.
Berman's work with the piece is ongoing. Castilleja School received a $5,000 Applied Materials Excellence in the Arts grant from Arts Council Silicon Valley to hold a recent "Pencil Symposium" at which local high school students discussed their experiences with standardized testing. Footage of her creating the piece, the symposium discussions and more will be eventually edited into a video, for which she is currently raising funds via Kickstarter.com. She even envisions using pencils to create the video's musical score.
Berman is a longtime friend of Castilleja art teacher and gallery curator Deborah Trilling and has shown art in the Seipp Gallery before. For "Pick Up Your Pencils, Begin," Castilleja — and Palo Alto — seemed to be the perfect place to debut the piece and hold its related events. "With Stanford University just across the way and education being a priority in this community, it does fit perfectly," Berman said.
Trilling added that the school's math department is particularly interested in the piece. "Because the work is in the shape of a bell curve, it can be used to help students grasp the power of this graphing/statistical concept," she wrote in an email interview. "The world is interdisciplinary and Harriete's artwork is testimony to that fact." Student reactions, she added, have been very positive.
Berman will be working with Castilleja art students this April (also covered by the grant), leading them through pencil-based and other recycled-material projects, including fanciful marionettes made of what some might call junk. These projects emphasize environmental awareness as well as craftsmanship.
"I want them to think about using and reusing materials and how we throw out tons of stuff every day," she said, demonstrating how the puppets, with hats made of such material as discarded mustard tops, can wiggle about. She said she also hopes to teach them how simple objects can be turned into complex works of art.
For Trilling, "Pick Up Your Pencils, Begin," demonstrates just that. Berman's "monument to the pencil," she said, "combines imagination, a good idea and hard work to transform an everyday object into an artwork of incredible beauty."
Info: "Pick Up Your Pencils, Begin," an art installation by Harriete Estel Berman
Where: Anita Seipp Gallery, Castilleja School, 1310 Bryant St., Palo Alto
When: The installation is up through March 30, with the gallery open weekdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. or by appointment.
Info: Go to www.castilleja.org .