Sunflowers at Hill Center’s Young Artists Gallery

Photograph By
Marla McLean

Sunflowers inspire wonder in SWS Kindergarteners.

What comes to mind when you think of sunflowers? Seeds to snack on? Dazzling fields in “Dr. Zhivago”? Roiling oils a la Vincent Van Gogh? Students at School Within School (SWS) are offering their own perspectives in the Young Artists Gallery at the Hill Center.

When SWS art teacher/atelierista Marla McLean returned to school this fall she was greeted by the most enormous sunflowers she had ever seen. The children planted the seeds before school let out as part of the FoodPrints program run by Margaret Finneran, so the flowers weren’t totally unexpected – but the scale was still a shock to the senses, especially for the younger kids who had to crane their necks to see the tops. The vitality of the garden inspired McLean to make it the focus of the mixed-media installation opening this month. Works will include pen and ink drawings of sunflower plants, studies of sunflower heads in colored pen, a life-sized mural in acrylic on canvas, and photographs documenting the experience.

McLean began the unit by arranging clipped heads of sunflowers, in progression by stages of life, on a strip of black velvet to create a strong visual image: “They are bright and then it goes dim to dimmer to dimmer,” remarked Hector Campbell-Wesson, one of her students.

The children were able to closely examine the flower heads and record their impressions with colored pens. They also made many visits to the garden for “plein air” drawing, so absorbed in their work that birds, squirrels, butterflies, bees, moths, and even a cat stopped in to share the scene.

SWS is a Reggio Emilia learning environment where children are encouraged to express their understanding both poetically and scientifically. The sunflowers have a purpose beyond artistic inspiration: they’ll play their part in science and math lessons and their seeds will be used as food for humans (granola bars) and wildlife. 

A sense of wonder informs these observations from kindergarten:

“I made this sunflower with all my love.” – Nate Harvey

“If I was a sunflower, I would be really happy, cause I'd be up high. And then you can see most things that you can't see if you are a human.” – Maya Smith

“Don't worry if the seeds come out, 'cause they grow up again ... you know, the life cycle!” – Maya Strada

“When it [the sunflower] bends down, it looks like a rainbow.” – Oskar Brown

“It looks like you can take a shower under it.” – Caleb Freihage

The sunflower show is on display in the ground floor gallery at the Hill Center, 921 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, until early December. McLean invites you to come visit. She hopes that children will “find great peace and magic in connecting with nature, that they are inspired to create, that they notice the extraordinary in the ordinary, and that throughout life they remember to stop and smell the sunflowers.” Good advice for all of us.