Wood Gormley Elementary students create immersive oasis

April 6, 2018 GMT

Turtles have taken over the hallways at Wood Gormley Elementary School.

And in the lobby, a variety of fish, clams, lobsters, sea horses and sponges fill a reef scene dominated by corals — sessile creatures that take root on the ocean floor.

While the colorful, Meow Wolf-inspired immersive arts project is meant to entertain, the exhibition also draws attention to the challenges facing the world’s coral reefs as they struggle to survive in an era of global warming.

According to a UNESCO study released in 2017, many reefs are in danger of dying out by midcentury because of ocean warming — which would be devastating for fish and other ocean species, as well as humans who rely on those species for food.

Coral Reef and Friends is the title of the exhibit and the main theme of Wood Gormley’s annual Art Night, which launches at 5:30 p.m. Friday. The event is free and open to the public.

“I’m always surprised when people say they have not heard about this crisis,” said Joanie Kleypas, a coral reef scientist who works at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. “But a lot of people may not have an avenue for hearing about it,” she added, “and that’s why schools play an important part in our society in communicating that message.”

Kleypas, who acted as an adviser for the 2017 documentary Chasing Coral, visited Wood Gormley Elementary earlier this year to talk to students about coral reefs and the dangers they face. Many students attended a local screening of the film.

In art teacher Mary Olson’s class, students also created a series of both two-dimensional and three-dimensional art projects emphasizing the plight of endangered species such as the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle and the leatherback turtle — one of the heaviest reptiles in the world.

Parent and volunteer Geri Ayrault said adults also got involved with the exhibit, knitting, sewing and crocheting corals, octopuses and other sea creatures, either at home or during a “yarn-in” in the school library. The two weeks of art classes designed to prepare the project expanded to “three weeks, and then four weeks, because the kids didn’t want to stop,” she said.

“A lot of kids did not know that corals are living animals,” Ayrault said, adding that it was wonderful to watch as “desert kids learned about the world of water.”

First-grader Uma Namchack was one of those students. She helped create a painting for the exhibit and said the project “is really beautiful and it’s important because a lot of coral are endangered. We’re losing coral reefs every year.”

Kleypas said that in her experience, she hasn’t seen “this kind of project happening in very many places … nothing like this where they tackled it from so many different angles and with so many volunteers.

“Scientists can talk like preachers, so pedantic, but through art, people can learn about the issues on their own and use all their senses to immerse themselves into it,” she added. “… Art uses every part of the brain and involves you emotionally and intellectually.”

Ayrault said she and Olson brainstormed the idea earlier this year, working to emulate the interactive art exhibitions that the Santa Fe-based Meow Wolf arts collective creates.

Art Night also includes student art pieces featuring Greek and Egyptian gods, which adorn the walls of the hallways.

Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com.