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Artist Molds Young Minds at UWS School with Clay

By Leslie Albrecht | October 25, 2011 7:08am | Updated on October 25, 2011 8:28am

UPPER WEST SIDE — The elite Dwight School specializes in molding future world leaders, but students recently did some molding of their own — with clay.

Professional artist Peter Barnett, a 54-year-old South African, lent his skills to the private school as a visiting instructor this month, teaching students how to craft ceramic works of art.

Barnett, who's currently an artist-in-residence at the Museum of Arts and Design, is a painter and photographer, but he's also known for creating small-scale ceramic cars, some of which have moving wheels and doors that can open.

Under Barnett's tutelage, fifth graders at Dwight got a chance to try their hand at making cars, while fourth graders made houses and third graders made bowls. Barnett also lectured 11th grade students on how to create a work of art, from idea to finished product.

Barnett, who has a masters degree in art education, called clay "vital" to young people's cognitive development.

"When a child learns in clay, they can learn concepts much more easily as opposed to when they're just seeing abstract concepts on a chalkboard," Barnett said. "Art teaches kids to think in ways that other disciplines don't offer."

Working in ceramics helps students better grasp math and geometry, and even literature, he said.

On Monday fourth graders Tara Kerr and Pepe Evangelio sat down in an art studio with Barnett to learn how to make what Barnett calls "Peter pots," which look a little bit like opened Chinese food takeout cartons.

Barnett showed the students how to flatten a ball of clay into a sheet with a rolling pin, then fold up the sides to create the walls of a vessel.

"Do you do this for fun?" asked Evangelio.

"Some people pay me to do this," Barnett responded.

At the end of the lesson, Kerr declared working with clay "moldable fun."

"This looked so hard, but it's easy," Kerr said. "I'm going to show my mom how to do it."

Evangelio said he liked working with clay because it's messy. "I like being messy," he said. "When it's raining, I like not putting my umbrella on top of my head."

Art teacher Al Doyle, chair of Dwight's visual and performing arts department, said Barnett is the first of many artists he hopes to bring to the school as visiting instructors. Dwight also recently hired an artist-in-residence, Olimpia Ferrari, who's been commissioned to create a work of art that will adorn the student lounge.

Dwight, with a K-12 enrollment of 550 students, counts some notable artistic minds among its alumni, including pop artist Roy Lichtenstein and writer Truman Capote. Paris Hilton also reportedly attended the school. Annual tuition at Dwight ranges from $34,500 to $36,750.

The school's main campus is at West 89th Street and Central Park West.

Dwight students got a kick out of working with Barnett, but the artist said he gets something out of teaching too.

"If you can share your knowledge and people respond positively, you've made a tiny bit of difference on the planet," Barnett said.