By Betsy DiJulio
The “baby” or rather “babies” were, in this case, art teacher Trish Pfeifer’s best-behaved fifth grade class at St. Helena Elementary School in Norfolk. Pfeifer is an award-winning art teacher/art teacher mentor for Norfolk Public Schools, and this project is just one reason why.
After seeing the work of self-taught artist Harrod Blank—as well as his book Art Cars: the cars, the artists, the obsession, the craft—after one of Trish and husband Ken’s frequent sojourns to the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, she had a brainstorm. Why not allow one of her classes to transform the couple’s “dog car,” a now 20-year old aqua Ford Festiva, into an “art car”? The car was so well worn that a little tempera paint—make that a lot of tempera paint—wouldn’t hurt it and would wash away in the next storm.
So, for some 15 years, that is exactly what she has done. Throughout the school year, plastic points for each class go into—or are removed from—a cup on the classroom teacher’s desk, rewarding focus, the following of instructions, and the like. Five points equals a star that is posted on a public chart in the school cafeteria. At the end of the year, the class with the most stars wins the much anticipated “Art Car Party” consisting of car painting, additional art activities, and food.
“Early on,” Pfeifer notes, “I learned that I needed a theme” for a successful end result. This year’s theme was simply “patterns;” other years, the Festiva has been festooned with painted flowers, faces, and more.
But it’s not all just fun and games, as the Pfeifers are devoted collectors of contemporary art, including outsider art. So, Trish takes this opportunity to teach her students about the art car phenomenon. Artists’ transformative approaches are “all over the place” as she says, ranging from obsessively covered to those that are made to look like other objects, with devotees of the genre gathering for parades, festivals, and exhibitions all around the US.
Taking their cue from these “cartists,” Pfeifer’s students spend about 1 ½ to 2 hours painting free-hand—no drawing first—their interpretation of the year’s selected theme. The resulting masterpiece is parked in front of the school where it enjoys a gleeful chorus of shouts, waves, and beeps from enthusiastic students, parents, staff and bus drivers.
I’d give this project an auto-matic A+.