Educator:

Christy Maurer, art teacher at Exton Elementary in the West Chester Area School District.

Achievement: Exton Elementary's courtyard now has an eye-catching new tree of steel and glass, thanks to Maurer's efforts.

Maurer was able to bring in Lucartha Kohler, a cast-glass artist from Philadelphia, as an artist-in-residence thanks in part to a $1,500 grant from the Philadelphia Arts in Education Partnership and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and to donations from Exton's PTO.

Question: Who came up with the idea of building a tree out of steel and glass? Were any other projects considered?

Answer: It's not the first artist in residence that I've done. We did a big mural in our courtyard a couple of years ago. I decided that I wanted to look for another artist in residence, and I knew of Lucartha, and it's something a little different.

Most kids don't get to work with glass when they're in elementary school. She's done this at two other elementary schools. It's a perfect fit with the fourth-grade curriculum, because they're doing tree identification.

Q: The idea of making a tree from steel and glass seems somewhat symbolic, especially in light of all of the news generated by global warming over the past few years. Was there any particular message behind this piece of art?

A: No, I mean in a way there is, because we wanted to bring some awareness to kids to think about and look really closely at trees and nature, and talk about how old the glassmaking process is, and how it might have evolved. It does make you think a little bit about how things work, and how all off nature works, but it wasn't a point to try and really hit them over the heads with it.

Q: Explain how the tree was created.

A: We had the kids go out and bring in real leaves, and we used those to form leaves out of clay. We then used each clay leaf to make a plaster model, so when you removed the clay from the plaster, you had an imprint of a leaf.

We filled the molds with glass frit, which is like ground-up glass. Then we just took the whole mold and put it into the kiln and fired it in there. For this project I believe the kiln reached about 1,600 degrees.

Q: And Kohler made the tree downtown, so how did she get it out to Exton? Was it disassembled?

A: I had to drive it out in a pickup truck. That was pretty hairy. I had to use a lot of straps. She had an undergrad student help her weld the steel tree together. Now that it's planted, it's about eight or nine feet tall; it's about 10 or 11 feet total.

Q: How does the tree look on campus? Is it kind of jarring to look at, or does it blend in?

A: It looks spectacular, especially with the sunlight behind it. The leaves are just gorgeous, in and of themselves. We have a little courtyard area, and we have a big mural that is bright and colorful on one wall there, so it's not really out of place to have something so colorful out there. It looks perfect.

Q: How did the kids do with their end of the work? Any creative color mixes for the glass leaves?

A: There was some mixing and matching, and we didn't stay true to what the actual leaf would be. We've got some blue, some pink. And they used things like diamond grinders to smooth out the edges. Any time kids get to use power tools, they love it.

- Will Hobson