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Community collaborates on Fowler students' art project

FOWLER -- Scores of people packed the Benton County Courthouse on Tuesday night to see the opening of an exhibit by local artists -- the town's fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders.

INTERESTED OBSERVERS: Morgan (left) and Emily Rettig and their mother, Jenny, of Fowler look over a photo exhibit Tuesday night at the Benton County Courthouse.
(Photo by Frank Oliver, Journal and Courier)

An exhibit of more than 150 photography projects brought out students, parents and community members and demonstrated the benefits of community collaborations.

Freelance photographer and writer Kathy Petrere worked for three weeks with students at Fowler Elementary School, teaching them about photography and other ways of expressing themselves. The children then used cameras, computer programs and creative writing to create projects for display.

"They did such a great job," Petrere said, looking around at the exhibits Tuesday night. "I'd love to say it's all my doing, but they really worked hard."

The project was funded by a grant from VSA Arts of Indiana, a nonprofit group that works to provide arts experience to children with disabilities. The school received additional funding from the Benton Community Foundation, and the West Lafayette Wal-Mart donated disposable cameras and photo processing.

After taking a series of photos, the students each chose one piece on which to focus. They used the computer software Photoshop to manipulate the photograph -- altering its colors, blurring its edge and making other changes. They then wrote a story or poem inspired by the photograph.

Fourth-grader Jamie Powell turned a picture of a vent grate into a story about a trap door that would have saved people during the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. She said she had been thinking a lot about how the loss of loved ones would have affected people and was glad to have a new way to express those thoughts.

"It helped me think about how people felt when their family dies, how bad it was when their loved ones died," Jamie said. "I thought about what it would have been like to be able to save those people."

VSA Arts of Indiana president Jim Nulty said that type of expression was the benefit of a project such as the one in Fowler.

"Each one of us is different, and each one of us has the ability to express ourselves," Nulty told the students. "This is a way for you to tell us, the grown-ups, what goes on inside your heads."

Nulty was so impressed with the project that he has arranged for some of the pieces to be displayed at the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis for next summer's national governors' conference.

Petrere said no matter how well the final projects turned out, the most important part was the process. The children, she said, were able learn to look at the world in new ways.

"It's really more about the experience and being able to look through the lens and see something you want to take a picture of," she said. "Getting a final project, that's great, but it's more about the experience and the learning."

Kathy Chambery, executive director of the Benton Community Foundation, said the project is an example of what can happen when different parts of the community collaborate for a common goal.

"This is community building," Chambery said. "You build communities by building collaborations like this."

Chambery said the community foundation works primarily with larger capital projects in the county. They have funded two firehouses, town halls and recently provided funds for the expansion of the Boswell Public Library.

Like all community foundations throughout the state, the Benton Community Foundation is in the midst of a major capital campaign to benefit from a matching funds promise by the Lilly Foundation. Until the end of the year, Lilly will match any donations made to the foundation's endowment up to $2.1 million. That would make a huge difference to the $3.5 million the group currently has.

"It would be tremendous," Chambery said. "It would more than double our total."



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