Say cheese

Conneaut Lake Middle School seventh- and eigth-grade social studies teacher Steve Neal (from right) poses for a picture in front of ‘Woolly’ the mammoth with sisters Megan, a seventh-grader at the middle school, and Lindsey Kantz, a sophomore at Conneaut Lake Area Senior High School during the ‘Celebrating Our Town’s Story Through Art, History, Nature and Culture’ event at Conneaut Lake Middle School on Wednesday evening. 

CONNEAUT LAKE — Student crafts, murals and other artworks lined the walls of Conneaut Lake Middle School Wednesday night, telling tales of  years gone by at “Celebrating Our Town’s Story Through Art, History, Nature and Culture.”

Conneaut Lake Middle School hosted the arts engagement event in collaboration with its Title I Reading program, Allegheny College and Conneaut Lake Borough to gather community stories and share Conneaut Lake’s history.

The event served as the launch point for the borough’s National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Our Town grant, which is expected to produce a public art trail connecting the downtown business district to Ice House Park and Fireman’s Beach.

“Our main goal is to build community and gather community stories about Conneaut Lake,” said Amara Geffen, who is serving as the project’s lead artist. “It’s our first launch event for the grant.”

The grant, worth $75,000, was secured this past summer, Geffen said.

Event workshops, facilitated by guest speaker and nationally renown community organizer David Hunt, were designed to collect stories and memorabilia which would in turn inspire designs and aspects of the public art trail. The stories and objects were also planned to be put into a community time capsule.

While the workshops provided attendees with a powerful and fun experience, Geffen said, they didn’t necessarily collect all of the items sought for the project.

“It was as successful evening (with) positive feedback,” Geffen said. “I think we’ll try and do it again — put on another event exclusively for the time capsule.”

Geffen stressed items donated would ideally be reflective of people’s lives and experiences in Conneaut Lake.

She hopes to regroup with Hunt and Allegheny College students involved with the project to plan for the next steps in order to use the NEA grant and material gathered at Wednesday’s event.

Once completed, the time capsule will be reopened at a follow-up workshop at Fireman’s Beach during summer 2015 so its objects and stories can be used in a community art event.

“Stories will be used in the design of sculptures we’ll be making through the public arts trail,” Geffen said, implying that donated memorabilia will inspire project designs as well.

The NEA’s Our Town program supports creative placemaking projects that contribute ideally to the livability of communities and help transform them into lively, beautiful and sustainable places with the arts at their core.

“It’s a wonderful event,” said Conneaut Lake resident Deborah Richardson, looking over student-made masks and models of Native American longhouses. “This is a great way to learn our community’s history. The students worked very hard and it’s good to see their hard work and pride.”

More than 100 students, parents and community members gathered throughout the night to look at numerous Native American and local history-themed displays, from miniature models of native lifestyles to carved wooden replicas and metal artifacts from Conneaut Lake’s past.

“The kids are just terrific,” said George Rutherford of the Conneaut Lake Area Historical Society Museum. “They’re interested, inquisitive and courteous.”

Rutherford’s display showcased museum tools dating back to a time before electric refrigeration when blocks of ice were chopped in local ice houses and shipped from Conneaut Lake down to areas like Pittsburgh.

Pieces included large metal rods and tongs used to break up, pull and haul ice chunks.

Similar displays and even live demonstrations were held in classrooms and the gymnasium, including a traditional Native American fancy shawl dance, performed by Conneaut Lake Middle School student Annaliese Ogden.

She danced amidst a makeshift pow wow made up of spectators sitting in a circle.

“I liked it,” Ogden said. “It was cool, but it got tiring after a while.”

Ogden performed several dances for schoolmates prior to the event in line with the school’s “Learning Beyond the Classroom” cultural day last month.

Ogden’s mother, Suette Hoffman, spoke before the night’s performance, sharing historical information about their Native American culture and personal heritage.

“This program and project I believe has a tremendous amount of merit in keeping local culture and history alive,” said George Nowack, director of Arts for Everyone. “If arts and culture are lost, an area suffers tremendously.”

Nowack’s classroom area displayed historic photos and paintings of Conneaut Lake Park as two of his resident apprentices sanded wood pieces as part of a larger project to replicate a carousel rabbit formerly housed at the park.

“It’s exciting because you know when it’s all finished, you helped,” said John Brink, Conneaut Lake Middle School student.

He sanded a wooden leg behind Dalton Brink, Conneaut Area Senior High School student, who called the project “a lot of fun.”

You can help

Area residents are still able to submit items reflective of their lives and experiences related to Conneaut Lake. Interested donors can reach out to Amara Geffen at ageffen@allegheny.edu or Emily Yochim at eyochim@allegheny.edu.

Konstantine Fekos can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at kfekos@meadvilletribune.com.

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