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‘The Ties that Bind’ brings art, dialogue to Rugby High School

By Sue Sitter - | Mar 20, 2021

Sue Sitter/PCT A connector made by art student Ellie Kuntz hangs on one end of the Rugby High cafeteria ceiling.

Rugby High School’s cafeteria looks less like a school lunchroom and more like a space in an art museum lately, thanks to a project by students in Terry Jelsing’s art class.

Called “The Ties that Bind,” the colorful piece draws attention to the cafeteria ceiling, where a series of linked pieces with loops on both ends form a circle around rows of light fixtures.

Jelsing said the piece resulted less from an idea than a reaction.

“You don’t start projects like this, you react to situations that make projects, and I suppose that’s kind of what this was about,” Jelsing noted.

“So, as the year went on and the restrictions of the pandemic were felt pretty strongly by the school and there was a real discipline to maintain that and do what was necessary to keep the school open.” Jelsing said, adding, “I started thinking about a project that also helped reinforce that idea.”

“There was one class that we had where there was just a lot of remorse about everything they were missing out on, especially in their senior year,” Jelsing said. “I felt that and thought, ‘What’s a way for an art project to become beautiful but therapeutic at the same time?’ So, as I started looking at materials we could work with, I started to think about COVID itself and the way doctors and the country were talking about it.”

“I think that night I went home and I was rummaging around a junk pile in my trees and saw these spools of barbed wire, with all the sharp, rusty barbs on them. I thought, well, there was a direct connection to that disease. It’s like, you touch it, you get poked. Something happens because of that,” Jelsing explained. “So, I took these rolls of barbed wire off the trees and brought them into the studio and started thinking about social distancing and making some incremental project that every student could do and at the same time, figure out a way to connect them and show the community their effort.”

Jelsing’s students began their work.

“Each student made a connector,” Jelsing said.

Each connector in the project is six feet long to represent the recommended space health officials recommend for social distancing. Each connector has a loop on both ends.

“Each person could cover the barbs, bandage the barbs in some way or remove the barbs,” Jelsing said. “So, we used recyclables like grocery bags, tape and other things. Then, there were boxes of fabric and yarn (that were used). And as we started to think about what these increments would be and what the binding would be, the binding started to tie in with the connection. So, ‘The Tie that Binds’ came out of that idea.”

Jelsing said as the project evolved, it began to take on therapeutic value for the students’ mental health.

“We started to take pieces of muslin or canvas fabric and I told the students to say whatever they wanted to express on those pieces of canvas that nobody else is going to read and they’re bound into all this stuff,” Jelsing said.

“So, they wrote or drew, or made messages in memoriam – there was one student who worked in long-term care and watched a few people pass away and felt bad about it. So, that memoriam statement was wrapped into the binding of her connector,” Jelsing added.

“As they wrapped their statements, I encouraged them to find some fabric from maybe a relative, or themselves, and to actually make incremental pieces of their family in this,” Jelsing said.

“Then,” Jelsing added, “when we finished it all up and tied these things together, we started to see how different they all were for their separateness and the beauty of their diversity, but at the same time, how they were all connected as a community.”

The project came together, sparking a lesson in art for public spaces.

“The idea of raising the connectors up in a common area like this takes it out of the range of a personal art object that you would maybe think of as decorative and putting it into a public space, so it opens up that dialogue of public art, and what does that mean? How is that different from the art that you make that’s very private and how do other people react to it in a public space?” Jelsing said.

“So, that’s kind of the thing,” Jelsing said, voice wavering. “In essence, this is really a celebration for the students, who maintained that discipline through this whole process. And it really shows that they are the tie that binds. I always get a little choked up when I think of that.”

Rugby High senior Ellie Kuntz pointed to her connector, a piece of the circle at the corner on the ceiling wrapped in black and white string and yarn, creating a zebra effect with a few dashes of color.

“I did the very corner piece right over there. It had black and white with a little bit of blue,” Kuntz said. “I wanted to bring into perspective the black and white, the positives and negatives of the virus. I added the color in to show how we made a change and made something beautiful out of something not so great.”

Kuntz said she used string as her primary material because “the restrictions have gotten so tight around schools and students and public events, the ties represent that restriction.”

“I really enjoyed this project,” Kuntz said “It helped me express myself. In our testimonial, I wrote about my stresses from this and how it affected me applying for colleges, since that’s my next step in life. I wrote about that and that helped me relieve some of my stresses.”

Kuntz said, “Boys state basketball got canceled last year and there was hope of that coming around this year. So, I wanted to show the sad part of that and the hope for that happening this year.”

Kuntz said her experiences in Jelsing’s class inspired her to choose art education as a major when she attends NDSU next year. She said she has worked as a teaching assistant for Jelsing.

“Mr. Jelsing let me teach one of the lessons myself with the younger students, so I got to experience the teaching aspect of art before I went into it,” Kuntz said.

“That corner right there would be mine, with the fluffy yellow and purple yarn,” Angeline Risovi said of her connector at the opposite end of the circle from Kuntz’s piece. “I used a lot of the fabrics and the yarn and I also brought some old clothes of mine and my brothers, and that made it a little more personal. I liked it like that.”

Risovi, a sophomore, said the pandemic affected her first year in high school.

“That was rough,” Risovi said. “I lost my freshman year of track and that’s my favorite sport. I also worked really hard on a duet in choir and it was really coming together just to not work out. It was weird because you kind of held onto the hope that it was going to come back, but then you just slowly realized it was gone.”

“It was all just really confusing and it made me feel a lot of things but I didn’t know how to think of any of that, so I think that’s part of the reason why this project was so nice to do,” Risovi added.

“Because I don’t think I could have put it into anything concrete but while writing that testimonial and doing everything in the wraps, it kind of made me realize some of the things that I felt more,” Risovi said.

“I’m a lot more hopeful for the rest of high school,” Risovi added. “I did not enjoy anything about COVID but at the same time, I kind of liked some of the things that came out of it. You got closer to different people and you realized a little bit more about yourself while spending all that time alone.”

Risovi said her experience inspired her to participate more in art as well.

“I’ve definitely considered art as a future career and if I don’t go into that, I’m definitely going to do art as a hobby and pastime for the rest of my life,” she said.

Jelsing said the project both inspires and represents “a conversation.”

“If you think of it as coding in a way, you’re coding (the conversation about COVID) in the wraps,” Jelsing said. “It’s like you’re building a segment and if there’s something that looks like punctuation, it’s more like language than an object. So, if you think of this as one long conversation that goes all the way around, it’s another way of talking about it.”

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