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Upper School Honors Art Students Explore Ambler

Germantown Academy honors arts students spent the better part of the 2018-2019 school year exploring the nearby borough of Ambler as part of “Looking at Ambler,” a multi-disciplinary, multi-departmental, collaborative project, which has included not only visual art classes, but English, history, math, and science classes as well. Faculty across these disciplines worked collaboratively to develop curricula exploring the town, its residents, and most importantly its evolution over the many years.

“The big goal was to get students out of the classroom and into the larger world,” said Upper School Visual Arts Department Chair David Love, who has been leading this deep study of Ambler since its inception. “Ambler has gone through so, so much. It’s the perfect petri dish to explore.”

Projects created in GA honors art classes will be on display at an exhibit entitled “Looking at Ambler: Observations by Germantown Academy Visual Arts Students” until April 28 at Cellini Studios and Gallery (113 Poplar Street, Ambler, PA, 19002). Student artwork was well received during the opening reception on Thursday, April 4. The GA community is invited to attend the closing reception, which will take place on Sunday, April 28 from 5:30-7:30pm. The exhibit at Cellini Studios is the culmination of the Upper School Visual Arts Department’s involvement in the year-long project, which looked closely at Ambler through the diverse lens of visual arts, performing arts, science, math, history and English.

In the early stages of this project, visual arts students devoted a full day to exploring Ambler. Their day began and ended with a walk into town on the Green Ribbon Trail, the wooded path that directly connects the campus to the borough. Students were intentionally given plenty of time to explore and document the town’s hidden and not-so-hidden beauty. All these initial explorations formed the basis for further discussions and studio work back at GA. Supporting and complimenting this hands-on work were presentations and  from social scientists, Ambler residents, government leaders, and historians. GA students heard a presentation by archivist Nancy Sullivan of the Historical Society of Montgomery County, a talk by Jack Benfield, Professor of Psychological/Social Studies at Penn State University – Abington, and a presentation and question-and-answer session with Ambler Mayor Jeanne Sorge and Ambler Main Street Manager Elizabeth Kunzier. Those visits touched on topics as diverse as social and racial equality, environmental issues, and gentrification.

Students also toured residential and commercial areas connected to Ambler’s asbestos history with Zac Brio and Britt Dahlberg from The Science History Institute (SHI). A significant resource for GA students has been the Science History Institute’s inter-disciplinary project Reach Ambler, which delved deeply into how Ambler’s residents and environment were, and in ways still are, profoundly affected by its legacy of asbestos manufacturing. According to its website, the Science History Institute “collects and shares the stories of innovators and of discoveries that shape our lives. We preserve and interpret the history of chemistry, chemical engineering, and the life sciences.”  

GA students also enjoyed a reading of “Fire’s Claim” by Performing Arts students Cianni Williams '20 and Sydney Hill '21. “Fire’s Claim” was originally part of the play White Mountains, a byproduct of Science History Institute’s Reach Ambler project. The play was based on oral histories of residents of Ambler. This particular play focuses on two sisters growing up in the town in the 1930s and a tragedy that involves their parents, both whom, worked at the asbestos plant.

“Like many towns across America, Ambler has gone through dramatic changes over the course of its existence,” said Love. “As an educational institution, an important part of the GA mission is to nurture students' understanding and appreciation of their environment, whether that’s the larger world or the Ambler community right down the street.  GA has strong connections to Ambler, from the natural tributary of the Wissahickon Creek, which connects the campus to the town, to GA alumni and parents who are directly connected to Ambler’s recent rebirth. All this made for an ideal collaborative project and a perfect fit. But even though the obvious goal of the project was to try to understand and tell Ambler’s story, maybe even more important was the opportunity for students to understand themselves and where they come from a little more fully.”

Visual Art Projects included:

Honors Sculpture
Honors Sculpture students in Sara Krupnick-Ritz’s class explored the buildings of Ambler and GA’s proximity to the town in a project called “Frameworks – Tracing the lines of Ambler Then and Now” to better understand it's history and culture. They thought about the town's historical and current priorities to try and better understand the relationship between a community's needs, vision and desires, and means. Students examined the goals of those in power and the sculptural, skeletal structures explore these ideas. Of the building represented in the sculptural installation, many are no longer standing, or, have been repurposed for the 21st century. Look inside the skeletal framework and imagine where Ambler is coming from, where it is now, and where it is going.

Honors Drawing & Painting
Honors Drawing & Painting students in David Love’s class explored open-ended projects that welcomed their own personal approach to art making. Students could create works that explored content issues such as environmental degradation and gentrification, to more traditional art making that explored point of view, architecture and the figure.

Honors Photography I & Honors Photography II
Honors Photography I and Honors Photography II students in Nicholas Wynia’s classes featured Ambler people and architecture in their submissions to this collaborative project. 

Advanced Honors Digital Media
Advanced Honors Digital Media students (Timothy Ruth '19, Emma Caplan '19, Brina Cartagenova '20, Drew Budinsky '19) and Digital Media Teacher Dainis Roman created a video that creatively tells Ambler’s history and introduces the public to the project that Upper School honors art students undertook. The video represents student works inspired by a number of trips to Ambler over the course of several months, which in turn, allowed students and faculty to acquire the necessary inspiration, photos, videos, paintings and sculptures needed to create the video. Currently, the video is being featured at the Cellini Studios and was well received at the opening reception. 

On April 17, students from all classes that participated in "Looking at Ambler" will share their finished projects at an Upper School assembly.

“I really like to branch out and have students think about their lives and their world and explore that in their own work,” said Love. “I have always liked the idea of collaborating and I think this could open the door for future collaborations with math, science, history, and English teachers."