Dome is where the art is

COTTAGE GROVE — A board with the words "Welcome to Art" written in wavy, rainbow letters sits next to the doorway of the new London School Art/Science Dome. Surrounding the letters are hearts and squiggly flowers.

At a time when art is more likely to be cut from a school's offerings than added, the dome — 45 feet in diameter with wood siding and white trim — is a space specifically designated for the K-8 school's 90 students as an art and project center. The structure cost about $400,000 to construct — and the South Lane School District didn't spend a penny.

Instead, more than 80 community members and businesses built the structure, the brainchild of longtime arts advocate Laurie Mootz. The dome structure was donated by the Gray Family Foundation, Swearengin Family Construction, whose owners have children at the school, served as the project manager, and volunteers broke ground for the project in the fall of 2007.

Recently, the school staff led community members on an open house tour of the dome. Students sang a song about gratitude.

School Principal Laurie Briggs said she wants the structure to inspire other schools to keep art in their curriculums — even in an era of budget cuts.

"We're just a little school in the country," she said. "If we can pull this off, anybody can. It just takes a community to come together."

The modern-style dome, juxtaposed against the 100-year-old one-room schoolhouse at London, is an intriguing image. The dome sits behind the old white and green-trimmed school in a grass field that leads to rolling velvetlike hills of evergreen trees. In front of the dome is a lofty fir tree that Briggs said has been there forever.

Walking out to the dome, said Selina Gonzales, the school's grant-funded art teacher, is an artistic experience in itself.

"It's beautiful, right next to the big tree," she said. "And the path out there curves, so it's not just straight."

Inside the spherical structure, a string hangs with cards that have the name of each person who donated time, money or supplies for the building. The floor, composed of different natural tones and geometric shapes, was constructed as part of an Eagle Scout project.

Though it's only been open since January, the dome already is decorated with students' and local artists' work. Collages of nature scenes, one with red-leafed trees next to charcoal, ominous clouds, hang on one wall. Ceramic animal finger puppets sit in a glass display case, including a penguin with large, round eyes, and a light brown walrus. Peach and gray seashells fill Mason jars that line a windowsill. A large mobile made of wood and beads hangs from the ceiling and serves as one of the room's dominant art fixtures.

Boxes of crayons, paints, colored pencils, baskets of scissors and shelves of paper and art books, including "The World of Van Gogh," neatly fill the room — a big contrast to how things worked before, Gonzales said.

Without her own classroom, Gonzales for years jumped from room to room to teach art, and stored supplies anywhere she could: school closets, her car, her home. The routine severely cramped her creative style.

"Before, the idea of papier mache was met with 'Uh-uh, the rooms are carpeted: No!'?" she said, giggling. "Now, I can take on bigger projects — like splatter paint."

Large windows welcome views of the green fields and one lone pink cherry tree in bloom. Between the views and the space itself, Gonzales said the dome fuels imagination.

"Inside, it's just beautiful," she said. "When you look up at the high ceiling, you feel like you're in a wide-open space — it makes you feel small in a grandiose place."

Students seem to agree.

"It's so cool," said first-grader Claire Jenkins, holding her head back to look up to the ceiling, her loose front tooth wiggling with her words.

The dome has several hexagon-shaped tables, an area complete with burners and cookware for cooking class, and a kiln room for ceramics — which is a good thing because clay seems to be a favorite among the youngsters. Students are working on making tiles in lavender, light green, turquoise and copper, to line the perimeter of the restroom's mirror.

On the arching ceiling, gray triangular acoustic panels hang to balance the sound in the structure. The dome still retains some echo, which is one of first-grader Kiaya Wright's favorite parts of the building.

"It sounds pretty," the 6-year-old said while twirling about.

Briggs hopes to have local artists come to the dome to hold art discussions with the students. Gonzales wants to have more after-school, weekend and summer activities in the dome for students, local artists and community members.

London once prepared students for work in the logging industry, Briggs said. But now, with less certainty about what jobs will be available, a well-rounded education that includes the arts is crucial.

"We have to think about new ways to educate students," she said. "We don't know what types of jobs will be out there, but we do know that it never hurts to be creative."

Both Briggs and Gonzales spoke of the psychological benefits of having art in the school.

"Art saves lives — I believe that," Gonzales said. "There are some kids having a hard time everywhere else, and here, they can come in and just draw or paint — and not think about all the rules."

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