What with bomb threats, lockouts and the like, the Rondout Valley Central School District has been having a bit of a rough year. So a bit of happy news is especially welcome, even when it wings its way right out of the Jurassic to hover in a refurbished exhibit hall in the Mid-Hudson Children’s Museum in Poughkeepsie. When it’s crafted by Rondout middle-schoolers from recycled and repurposed materials to make its Museum debut in time for Earth Day, that’s even better.
Meet Pteri the pterodactyl, so-called because the girls in Jill Obrig’s art classes regarded their group creation as a her and the boys as a him, and a named that’s pronounced “Terry” seemed like a good unisex compromise. “I believe that this is the first time that middle-schoolers in the Hudson Valley have a permanent installation in a museum of something that they made themselves,” says Obrig. “It’s like a dream come true.”
Larger than life-sized at five by eight feet, Pteri was assembled a year ago by six of Obrig’s seventh- and eighth-grade students: Armani Bingell, Aaron Brown, Krystal Long, Samantha Schomer, Amanda Sheeley and Nina Triplo. “It was the culmination of projects that I’d been working on with them for years,” Obrig explains. “We started small.”
Using cutout pieces of corrugated cardboard to form a basic structure, the students built up animal forms out of materials that they brought in themselves from home: “plastic bags, lots of newspapers, cardboard boxes, bottle caps, old hangers,” according to Obrig, who retired from teaching last year. Then the kids painted their creations. “Except for the tape, paint and glue, they’re all recycled materials.”
By the spring of 2011, her students had worked their way up to making three models of substantial size: a five-foot shark, a five-foot dolphin and a three-foot baby dolphin. The finished products became part of an exhibit curated by Obrig at the Unframed Artists Gallery in New Paltz, titled “Under the Sea.” “They’re now hanging up in the Rondout Valley School District office,” says Obrig proudly.
For their next project, the kids took on a real challenge. “We just got better and better as we kept going,” Obrig relates. “So for 2012 we decided to go one bigger.” Once they had decided on a pterodactyl, the kids did online research to find images to study. Then Obrig found a Christmas ornament in the shape of a pterosaur at Williams Lumber and brought it in. “I thought, ‘This is perfect. Now we have a three-dimensional representation to look at.’”
The group quickly found that a creature with an eight-foot wingspan is one of evolution’s more marvelous achievements, and difficult to duplicate. “The issue was how to keep the wings from collapsing. Wire hangers weren’t strong enough, so we stuck a scrap-metal tube through the body to hold up the wings.” They used bottle caps to build up the eyes, and one girl designed the “hands” at the apex of the wings by tracing around her own fingers, much like kindergartners do to draw a turkey when making Thanksgiving projects.
Another issue was what color to paint Pteri, since paleontologists haven’t yet come to any consensus as to the pigmentation of pterodactyl skin. “We didn’t know, so we went from green to yellow-green to yellow,” says Obrig. She taught the kids to use a dry-brush painting technique called scumbling to blend the shades gradually.
By May 2012 Pteri was finished — in time to hang in another show at the Unframed Artists Gallery in June, this one called “Up in the Air.” But afterwards, “Pteri needed a home, so I contacted Lara Litchfield-Kimber at the Children’s Museum.”
As it turned out, the timing couldn’t have been better, as the Museum was planning major renovations and redesign of its exhibit spaces, and Pteri was made welcome as a permanent installation in February 2012. “They’re totally revamping the whole Museum. It looks great,” Obrig enthuses. “Pteri is right near the windows on the second floor, hanging from the ceiling.”
The young artists, half of whom have now moved on to the Rondout Valley High School, will be honored with an unveiling event scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Friday, May 17. “They’re going to make this a special evening for Pteri and the kids,” open to the public, and the usual Museum admission fee will be waived. Hearts will no doubt be soaring, Obrig’s not least; for working with this group of students to make Pteri take flight, she says, “was a really profound experience for me as a teacher.”