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“It was about life and death,” said Allyson Zolnai of Meadville. “In the middle, it represented life, it was a big orange flower.

“Wait,” she said, “it was either yellow or orange, I can’t remember which.”

Zolnai is describing an art installation that she and two other artists were involved with recently.

“And in the layer outside of that, it represented death. It had dead leaves and sticks and things like that. And the very outside layer, that represented reproduction.”

Zolnai is 10 years old, by the way.

“In between there were clovers for luck and little white flowers for hope,” she said.

Zolnai, along with dozens of kids like her, are participating in the Meadville Family YMCA’s Summer Day Camp.

Each Monday a group of interns from Allegheny College’s Center for Economic and Environmental Development come to the camp and lead the kids in various art projects.

And even they’re impressed by the depth and insight displayed in the work of their young students.

“They are always so surprising,” Teresa Bensel, one of the CEED interns and a soon-to-be junior at Allegheny College.

“Kids just naturally think outside of the box,” she said. “And they went way beyond my expectations. It’s a joy to see them catch on to ideas and then run past anything I even say. It’s just a joy.”

CEED usually concerns itself with larger, community-wide projects like the revitalization of Shadybrook Park or the various beatification projects around Mill Run.

The group’s work with the YMCA camp is on a smaller scale. But it’s rewarding, say those involved.

“I haven’t had a lot of experience working with kids,” said CEED intern Emma Cook, also a junior at Allegheny. “But I feel really strongly that art plays a big role in children’s lives. It gives them a chance to express themselves.”

In a way, the YMCA camp project suits the mission of the CEED rather well.

“We use art as a community development tool,” explains Bensel. “A lot of people don’t see how art can directly connect to a community’s growth, and how art can work to make spaces into places.”

The YMCA camp gives the CEED folks a chance to spread that message to the community while it’s still young and impressionable.

The kids see to be taking to that message quite well.

“When we went back in the woods, that was my favorite one so far,” said Kayla Boehm, 10, who worked on the life-and-death piece with Zolnai and Britani Ditch, 12. All these girls are from Meadville.

“We grabbed stuff out of the woods and we made this thing,” said Boehm. “There was a flower in the middle, and the difference between life and death, and after we went out farther it dies. And then we put some rocks dirt around it and that’s where it reproduces.”

Wow. That’s pretty deep.

“Yeah,” she said.

Each week of the YMCA camp there is a different theme. And the CEED instructors try to tailor their projects to that theme.

For instance, this week the theme is “Oh, the Drama of it All.” And for today’s art project the class will be making masks. The shapes of the masks will be inspired by birds, with feathers, different shaped beaks, etc.

Last week’s theme, which produced the above work, was titled “Is this Art?” The instructors drew inspiration from the British artist Andy Goldsworthy, who uses items found in nature to create his pieces.

According to Cook, “When we walked into the woods the day before to kind of check it out we saw a lot of greens and browns. It’s not as colorful as, say, the fall. We were a little bit worried that it wouldn’t be too colorful.”

Yet, those little artists came through again.

“When the students came in, they found all these colors that we missed — yellow flowers, red leaves,” said Cook. “They saw all these things that we didn’t see when we were walking around.”

Pete Chiodo can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at pchiodo@meadvilletribune.com.

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