Kirkbride designs Art Museum display


More than 2,200 years separate 25 sixth graders at Eliza B. Kirkbride School, 1501 S. Seventh St., and Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China, but the students have spent the last three months contemporizing the significance of the leader’s final request.

Through the Delphi Project Foundation’s Art Partners program, conducted in partnership with The Philadelphia Museum of Art, they have become budding archaeological experts, constructing clay models akin to the figures meant to guard the head’s tomb mound and a plaster display of items abounding in their Passyunk Square community.

In his first year at the school, art instructor Peter Metcalfe arranged to have his pupils participate in the program, which links learning institutions with professional artists for 30-hour residencies. Having partnered with the museum for three years at North Philly’s William D. Kelley School, the resident of 29th Street and Snyder Avenue sought to intensify his grant history by offering teacher Nicole Del Quadro’s class extra chances to perform critical thinking. His plan united Kirkbride with Charlene Melhorn, who came to the building with an affinity for understanding the relevance of the emperor’s terracotta warriors to modern life and the repercussions of a discovery in Xi’an, the Shaanxi province’s capital.

“The kids have thoroughly enjoyed their involvement,” Metcalfe said Monday.

Metcalfe, also an instructor at Universal Audenried Charter High School’s South Philadelphia Talent Center, 3301 Tasker St., welcomed the learners before joining Melhorn, who made her 10th visit since their Oct. 17 introduction, for a review of concepts and vocabulary. The Delphi Project Foundation sponsored their relationship and provided $500 for art supplies and two museum trips. The first excursion occurred Oct. 28, completing a busy two-week period that set in literal motion their two-component task.

The first aspect centered on applying ancient Chinese history to the students’ civic knowledge. In 221 B.C., Huang became the premier emperor of unified China. He died 11 years into his reign yet had his legacy cemented through the Terracotta Army, a clay outfit consisting of thousands of soldiers and hundreds of chariots and horses meant to protect his spirit in the afterlife.

Farmers digging a water well discovered the life-sized works in 1974 near the mausoleum, prompting numerous archaeological studies and jeopardizing the diggers’ livelihood. The first Kirkbride meeting informed the students of the farmers’ plight, yielding empathy and interest in creating their own burial protection sculptures with air dry clay and modeling tools.

“Experimentation factors into my work,” Melhorn said. “I kept looking for ways to establish connections between the past and the present, and the Xi’an warriors kept coming up.”

Each class included a focus and a theme, a studio activity and media use. The first six meetings involved discussions of museum galleries to increase awareness of East Asian art pieces’ purposes. The first two-hour gathering bore the models, figures standing around six inches.

“I had heard of the warriors, but I have enjoyed learning about how to relate them to today,” Northeast Philly’s Alexander Roc said after Metcalfe distributed the creations to his charges for painting.

An October neighborhood walk to inspect sites and retrieve discarded items they could deem artifacts helped Alexander and his peers to begin the second part of their mission. A visit to the former Moyamensing Prison, now an Acme, 1200 E. Passyunk Ave., gave them historical perspective, as they learned poet Edgar Allan Poe spent a night there for public drunkenness and abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman comforted a prisoner there. They collected items such as chip bags, flip-flops, goggles, lighters, phone chargers, plastic bottles and transpasses to create personal boxes to form one exhibition piece.

Subsequent weeks saw them building frames, pouring molds after inserting their objects, digging and partially carving out the found items, arranging them to establish a sense of uniformity and recording individual stories. They completed their colorful concoction Dec. 12, with delivery of the 5-by-5-foot product to the museum occurring last week. The 135-year-old landmark chooses six schools each year, with South Philly landing half of this year’s spots. Joining Kirkbride at the Art Partners Student Exhibition in the museum’s Education Corridor through Jan. 29 are George Sharswood School, 2300 S. Second St., whose eighth-graders worked on a shark project and John H. Taggart School, 400 W. Porter St., whose eighth-graders looked at various forms of abuse, including that of the environment.

“This is my first class that has ever done something like this,” Del Quadro, in her third full year at Kirkbride, said.

The resident of the 12th and Porter streets will accompany her learners Jan. 6 when they observe their handiwork at the museum. She has noticed the project’s effect on their work ethic.

“It makes them more excited about learning,” she said. “It’s like the coolest thing ever to them.”

Numerous North American cities have hosted exhibitions of the army and artifacts from the mausoleum, including Atlanta, Ga.; Santa Anna, Calif.; Washington, DC; and Canada’s Montreal and Toronto. The Kirkbride bunch enjoyed gathering its own version Monday, painting the warriors and discussing the lessons picked up from being involved in the program.

“I tried to make a really strong figure,” Alexander said as he applied black paint to serve as his warrior’s pants.

He found a motor oil can on their local trek and made it the centerpiece of his box. Melhorn has made him so enthused about using clay that he has an idea for anyone who might be looking for a last-minute Christmas gift for him.

“I am so interested that I want a pottery wheel,” he said.

Gabrielle Sheridan, who located a video game on the march, carefully tended to her fighter. Learning of the warriors enthused the resident of the Fourth and Tasker streets so much that she plans to investigate more Chinese artworks.

“I just find the history so interesting because we can try to see what the past means to different cultures,” she said after completing her fighter’s mane.

Melhorn regularly replaced the water for the students as they applied their strokes and flashed smiles as they anticipated eating popcorn and viewing a movie on the warriors.

“They are engaged and excited,” she said, citing the blending of archaeological science and present experiences as the residency’s best aspect. “Their voices and stories are important, too.”

Their recordings will join the exhibition, and Kevin Trejo, who located a faucet for the display, is eager to hear his reflections.

“I had no art background,” the resident of Eighth and Dickinson streets said. “From the project, I’ve learned I like art more than I thought.”

Contact Staff Writer Joseph Myers at or ext. 124.