Peter Solow

Posted on 02 March 2012

The artist and Pierson High School art teacher, who is hosting a benefit art exhibition and sale this weekend to raise funds for the upcoming Pierson trip to Italy, talks about how travel impacts students, why arts education is critical and how Sag Harbor rallies around causes like this.

The artist and Pierson High School art teacher, who is hosting a benefit art exhibition and sale this weekend to raise funds for the upcoming Pierson trip to Italy, talks about how travel impacts students, why arts education is critical and how Sag Harbor rallies around causes like this.

By Kathryn G. Menu

The Pierson Art Department benefit art exhibition and sale this week features a number of celebrated artists like April Gornik, Bill King and John Alexander, as well as alumni. All the artists are donating their work, which will be sold for $100 a piece. Does being in the Sag Harbor community naturally draw this kind of talent, and support, to a cause like this?

I think it is because this is Sag Harbor. I think it is because there is a kind of commitment and concern for education and our community that these people have. They are professional artists, alumni, many who are kids that graduated from this program and are working in the field. I think there is also the concept of the importance of a public school in a community that is being celebrated. The other thing that has happened here is April [Gornik]. Here is a person with an international reputation that has made a commitment to this community in a number of ways. Her impact in helping to pull this together has been extraordinary.

You have organized this student trip to Italy for about 10 years now. How has the experience evolved?

We used to do this trip every year, but now its every other year because it really is so exhausting and time consuming to attempt to defer a portion of the cost of the trip for students. Parents are paying for this trip, but what we are trying to do is knock off a portion of that cost, and also bring some contingency money to cover unforeseen expenses or an activity or program that pops up that we want the kids to participate in.

This isn’t a boilerplate trip through Italy. We do traditional mask making in Venice, we will have a cooking class in Florence, we are going to a soccer game in Florence, which is a spectacle and for a lot of the kids a high point of the trip.

This year we are going to experience agritourism at a brilliant place outside of San Giuliano Treme that has been a family farm for five generations. They produce their own wine, their own saffron, raise their own beef, grow their own vegetables. It gives the kids an opportunity to see a different approach to organizing ones life. There are a wealth of experiences we have. It’s not just about art.

Does the diversity of Italian culture, with strong roots in the arts, culinary traditions and obviously history, make it an ideal travel abroad destination for students?

The original reason we went to Italy was because of my own predilection, and we used to have a curriculum at Pierson associated with the Italian Renaissance.

That being said, the answer is yes.

I think the most important thing when you go to a place like this with a culture like this is it gives you things. It gives you a profoundly more deep and rich understanding about things that you may understand academically, whether it is Slow Food or architecture or how we organize ourselves, politics, city-states.

One time we were there at the height of the second invasion into Iraq and there was a big protest and what the kids learned was the protesters were fond of our country but disagreed with us in this instance. Our kids were able to have conversations with these older students who were protesting and that was an incredible experience. It gives you a texture that is real — these are not experiences you are just reading about in a book. It also affords everyone the opportunity to look at our own country, where we come from, and understand it better.

You and I have talked about a number of stories where students lives changed after this trip. Can you pick one to share?

We have had so many kids tell me that this was the most important experience they had in school. Jackie Dowling was a tremendous student here, and a very good art student, but not really involved in photography. We were headed from Venice to Florence to Rome and we stopped for lunch in Mantua, which is known for its food and Jackie started looking around for a bathroom. So she is wandering these streets in Mantua and starts taking pictures. She spent the rest of the trip taking pictures and it was a revelation for her that happened by accident while she was trying to find a bathroom in Mantua. And her photography was extraordinary. It changed her life. She is still focused on her photography to this day.

What is it about Sag Harbor that makes it the kind of community that supports programming like this?

I pulled this out of The Sag Harbor Express from 1982 when the school was being rededicated. This was read by John Jermain Slocum from a letter he received from his cousin.

“It is interesting that Sag Harbor has not just let the Pierson High School crumble down. They could have knocked it down. We live in a society now that believes in knocking things down, throwing things away. But no, Sag Harbor chose to rebuild at great expense this high school with no sacrifice in quality. Every detail has been attended to and I think the reason for this is that people here still believe in Mrs. Sage’s feeling that this is a very special place. In Sag Harbor they value the best and finest. These people believe their children are the best and finest, and this school will help them to believe in the importance of the place where they grew up before they go out into the world.”

If you believe we have the best and finest, as I do, you understand that the education these kids need is not limited to a classroom. They have to understand and experience the world and they have to have these kinds of authentic experiences.

The Pierson Art Department benefit art exhibition and sale will be held on Saturday, March 3 and Sunday, March 4 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Pierson High School (200 Jermain Avenue, Sag Harbor). The exhibition will feature art by April Gornik, John Alexander, Bill King, Rick Gold, Lynn Matsuoka, Josh Dayton, Kathryn Solow, Vito DeVito, among others. Each piece will be sold for $100.

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