Burnham Park has a new neighbor, and it just happens to be a dragon. Its iridescent scales shine through the links of the fence in front of Greenfield Bilingual School on South 35th Street, greeting cars as they drive by. An array of native Wisconsin plants grows out of its back.
The wooden dragon is a three-piece sculpture garden made by 3rd- to 5th-grade students at the school through a project with Artists Working in Education (AWE), the Menomonee Valley Urban Ecology Center and a local ceramics artist. The school recently held a celebration to recognize the students’ hard work.
“I am really happy with (the garden) and am amazed that people like it,” said Jocelyne Muñoz, a 4th grade student at Greenfield Bilingual.
Muñoz worked alongside her classmates on the project. With the guidance of ceramics artist Janelle Gramling and Lainet Garcia-Rivera, community programs coordinator at the Urban Ecology Center, the students came up with the idea, made the tiles and planted the garden. They chose a dragon because it is the school’s mascot.
The students worked with Gramling and Garcia-Rivera throughout the school year, and Garcia-Rivera said she noticed a big change over time. “The first day we started, none of them wanted to get their hands dirty. Now they like it and enjoy being outside,” she said.
While learning about the biology of the plants and different types of soil, the students also learned the basics of ceramics. Each designed and made a unique tile that became the dragon’s scales. This was 4th grader Dana Muñoz’s favorite part. “You could use your imagination, but when you carved you had to be precise,” she said.
The project served multiple purposes. “Ultimately we hope the students gain an understanding of how the plants are part of art and how the two rely on each other,” said Ali Carlucci, program director at AWE.
“I think we really nailed it with having an artist from the neighborhood,” added Carlucci. She said that Gramling made the idea of making art, especially public art, attainable and accessible to the Greenfield students, who were able to visit Gramling at her nearby studio.
Working in her own community was important to Gramling as well. “(That) was a key ingredient why I was so excited about this project.,” she said. “I really like all the family qualities of this area, and I want to do what I can to keep beautifying it.”
Garcia-Rivera said she was thrilled with how the dragon turned out and with the students’ reaction to it. “I hope they developed a connection with nature that makes them want to protect plants in the future, and I hope they learn the value in caring for something they created,” she said.
AWE and the Urban Ecology Center intend to maintain their partnership with Greenfield Bilingual School and run a similar version of the program next school year.