“Crean en su propia creatividad,” “Todo el mundo es un artista,” “Everyone is an artist.”
These bilingual encouragements hang across the walls of the art room at Cesar Chavez Charter School, looking down on aspiring young artists. This room serves as a haven for art revival and creative expression for the third-graders of Mrs. Scarminach’s class. They meet here regularly to learn about famous artists and to mimic their works; but today called for a different occasion. Twenty students stood excitedly in a row, ponytails bouncing atop their tiny four-foot-tall bodies. In their hands were what appeared to be their most recent art project-a flower made from blue and purple pieces of paper. They waited patiently to enter the art room to give their bouquet to the artist who inspired them, Mary Heebner.
A few months ago Kathi Scarminach, Cesar Chavez’s art teacher, introduced her students to local artist Mary Heebner and her renowned book On the Blue Shore of Silence: Poems from the Sea. This bilingual art book combined Heebner’s paintings with some poems from the late Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. While seemingly heavy material for a third-grader, Scarminach thought it perfect for her students. “I like to place an emphasis on Latin American art and artists in residence,” Scarminach said. “[Her book] fit perfectly with the curriculum.” While they learned about Neruda’s poems in their homeroom, Scarminach taught the children about Heebner’s paintings.
The students created their own interpretations of Heebner’s beautifully painted silhouettes of women dancing deep in the ocean. Scarminach took a snapshot of the students with their paintings and sent it to Heebner’s home in Santa Barbara. Pleasantly surprised and deeply touched, Heebner wrote Scarminach, asking her if she could come visit and teach the students about her life as an artist, as well as share the actual paintings from her book that they modeled their own art pieces on.
On an unexpectedly sunny February morning, Heebner brought the original On the Blue Shore of Silence: Poems from the Sea with letterpress, pulp-painting, and handmade paper to share with her apprentices. Great interest and enthusiasm showed in the student’s eyes as Heebner talked about her start as an artist when she was as young as they were, and her journey up to when she was introduced to Neruda’s work. Heebner, a UCSB graduate and longtime Santa Barbara resident, traveled to Neruda’s home in Chile years ago and was captivated by his art collection. Among everything, what she was most drawn to were his mascarones-antique figureheads of women placed on the fronts of ships. Heebner told the inquisitive class that she felt the women of these mascarones looked as though they yearned to return to the ocean which Isla Negra, Neruda’s home, looked out onto.
This would become the subject of her paintings and, later, her book. Sharing an affinity for the ocean as Neruda did, Heebner was determined to create works that would encapsulate the same love for the ocean as Neruda’s poems did. Heebner then met with famed poet, translator, and longtime friend of Neruda, Alastair Reid, to discuss the potential of this book. Reid immediately agreed and so the process began with On the Blue Shore of Silence.
Sitting in a circle around Heebner, the students raised their hands encouragingly to ask questions about the paintings and to tell Heebner what they thought they saw. A bright bunch, the students were also able to apply Neruda’s deeply thought-out poems to their own paintings. At the end of Heebner’s visit, the students recited a poem from Heebner’s book and presented her with their paper flowers, along with a grateful, group hug. “This is truly the nicest and most thoughtful thing anyone has ever done for me,” Heebner said.
“This is the first real-life artist the students have met. Usually the artists we imitate are dead,” Scarminach laughed. “They will never forget this day, ever.”
Cesar Chavez is a “dual language immersion” elementary school, implementing a 50/50 balance in the use of English and Spanish in its instruction.