Jeffersonian Ideals

An art exhibition gets made without any art administrators

"I didn't have a budget," says Jane Pesek, who functions under the adaptable title of director of development at Thomas Jefferson School. In her cluttered office on the second floor of the school's compact administration building, Pesek goes through a portfolio of the sculptures installed on campus without a budget over the last few months. She looks a little amazed at what has been accomplished.

Thomas Jefferson School is sheltered behind leafy trees and a stone wall that meanders along Lindbergh Boulevard in Sunset Hills. Although the college-prep boarding school has been here since 1946, Pesek says it's probably better known outside St. Louis than it is locally. Students are attracted from around the world for an education that includes Greek and Latin, advanced-placement courses and an Arcadian environment where the classics can still resound in a young mind. Even on a bright spring day the campus is a quiet, studious place, and teenagers walk together casually dressed in T-shirts, jeans and sweats. They smile without a trace of contempt for elders.

Pesek had no budget; she had no long-range plan, no curriculum guides, no artistic-review committee. What she and her colleagues at TJS had was a vague idea and an idyllic space for sculpture. "Somewhere along the line, somebody said there wasn't a space to show large sculpture in the area," Pesek says. From that small seed, the exhibition Erga Topika: Works on Site, was conceived. Nine works by nine local artists are on display now at the school, and it's one of the finest sculpture exhibitions to be found anywhere.

As it happens, what TJS lacked was all the baggage that turn art exhibitions into lame exercises in the status quo. They lacked funding and expertise. They had no planning committee. And there was no one around telling them, "You can't do it this way."

Pesek and colleagues lacked the protocols. Instead, they chose to give the people with the ideas -- the artists -- room to explore, with few parameters. Rather than provide oversight, TJS let what happened happen.

"If we had had a huge, detailed plan in place," says Pesek, "it wouldn't have worked as well. I don't think anything else we do will have the impact of this first event. It's been a discovery event rather than a teaching event."

Last November, on the road to discovery, someone had the good sense to recommend that the school put out a call for artists. A loose confederation of teachers, administration, students and maintenance personnel got together and reviewed the applicants and selected the nine sculptors: Greg Edmondson, Phil Robinson, Soo Sunny Park, Andrew MacGuffie, Brian Burnett, Paul Linden, Noah Kirby, Arnold Nadler and Kurt Perschke. They were offered no more than a site for sculpture and a catalog when it was all done.

Without any "art professionals" on hand as consultants, the TJS crew managed to select nine really good artists. Then they left the artists alone. Few meetings were held. The artists' concepts did not suffer death by committee. "Nobody fought. Nobody had strange ideas," says Pesek.

Robinson, who teaches at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and so knows something about the world of committees and memos, remembers there was a brief attempt "to try and get us to agree on something as a theme." Webster University professor and art critic Jeffrey Hughes was in attendance, because he would write an essay for the catalog. The idea of a theme was quickly shelved, with the achieved consensus being little more than "let Jeff Hughes write the thing and we'll see how it works out," says Robinson.

A few of the artists arrived to begin installation when the students were away on spring break in March. Robinson was one of those, recalls Pesek: "It was very cold. He was putting in concrete on his hands and knees."

TJS selected not just good artists but artists who "went overboard" says Robinson. "You say yes, then you have to do it," Robinson laughs. He, too, is surprised by how well the project turned out, run as it was by "lots of energy" and not much else. But, he says, the "no-pressure aspect helped us achieve our goals." Robinson had the opportunity to work in a new medium, concrete, and to work outdoors. That was enough.

"Certainty, Spin, Secrets" consists of three concrete head shapes lain flat in the grass, with a different form inlaid in each profile: a fireplug, a hammer and the adapter for the hole in a 45 record. The pieces cannot be seen until you've come upon them on the lawn, as obscure visually as they are conceptually.

In terms of educational goals, none has been prescribed, other than to give the students an opportunity to live with art and to be around working artists. Nobody told the students what to think. Nobody told them the art was good for them. "I'm not telling you every kid is in love with every piece," says Pesek, "but that's part of what they've learned."

Art isn't always lovable, but there's a lot to like on the TJS campus. Again, the nonconformity brought to the enterprise makes the sculpture tour across the small campus that much more appealing. The exhibition delights by contrasts.

Park, an artist whose work continues to impress conceptually and aesthetically, selects what looks like a prime smooching spot in a grove of trees. "Moving the Air/Stirring the Gap" consists of thousands of plastic squares glittering and fluttering in nylon nets in the leafy branches. She affixed nearly 20,000 of those squares -- some clear, some reflective, some white -- within the netting with metal hooks, all by hand. The work gives visual and aural composition to light and wind, devising an easeful intersection between art and nature.

Burnett, in contrast, disrupts the earth, getting below ground for "The Space Beneath," a mock excavation site. Covered by a blue plastic tent and lit by orange utility lamps, the "dig" reveals the detritus of TJS, which Burnett gathered over the last few months. An English-composition notebook, cereal boxes, scraps of wood impaled on screws: We are what we leave behind.

Burnett's archaeology stirred unforeseen dissension. A girl who'd recently broken up with her boyfriend found a gift she'd given him in the layered artifacts. He was busted. A lesson learned: Art reveals.

Two works given central locations on the campus both play on the theme of perspective. MacGuffie's "A Chair for Copernicus" can be viewed at a distance as a long I-beam situated on a central axis, a chair at one end of the beam, a sheet of metal at the other. Or you can take the Copernican view and sit in the chair and let a friend spin you around the symbolic sun.

Each artist has given a five-minute presentation to the weekly student assembly. MacGuffie says he felt the kids "got a kick out of" his sculptural representation of the Copernican revolution, but, he admits, "the science teachers were more excited."

"'Learning How the World Works,'" says Edmondson, "could be the title of every piece I've made." Like MacGuffie's work, Edmondson's explores how the world is perceived. For inspiration, Edmondson took an educational toy in which children recognize the relationships between forms. Two interlocking squares are decorated with cutout shapes -- a duck, a cat, a bird, a pawn, a tree. The sculpture has a pleasing shadow play, with the shapes projecting on the lawn, and offers a unique perspective of the surroundings through the cutouts.

The exhibition, which continues through July 30, includes Linden's oakwood sculpture "Book Tower," Perschke's reconfiguring of an old on-campus fountain in a work called "Fountain," Kirby's tall poured-concrete monolith "Sebastian" and Nadler's "Still," yellow twisting metal that appears as if it has fallen from the sky.

Erga Topika looks as if it could have fallen from the sky and landed artfully through luck and fortitude. Pesek doesn't know where things will go from here. Students have asked her, "These pieces aren't going away, are they?" So discussions have been initiated in such subjects as the pricing, selling and buying of art.

Another unplanned lesson: value, and how it is conferred.

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