CASCADE OBSERVATIONS: Grafting, pollinating and sorting: The joy of 'Harvesting Our Stories'

Although I’m closer to age 60 than age 6, I’ve spent the last year immersed in the ABCs. Not the ones that adorn wooden blocks, however, but rather an Arts Build Communities (ABC) grant.

In December 2011 Mid Valley Elementary School received word that we had received one of the coveted grants. As stated on the Oregon Arts Commission’s web page, “These grants support arts projects and innovative partnerships that deliver community-based solutions for local issues and needs.” Fifty-four organizations submitted proposals to the OAC; only 24 were selected.

Two projects received funding in Hood River County: Our project, entitled “Harvesting Our Stories,” and another submitted by the Gorge Grown Food Network.

“Harvesting Our Stories” targeted children in our after-school “Project PM” program and students in the school district’s summer migrant school.

Our vision was straightforward. Students would learn about all aspects of the local fruit industry through field trips, visits to the school from industry specialists and interviews with family members and other involved in the fruit industry. We hoped that these interactions would not only help kids gain knowledge about this critically important industry, but that these acquaintances would also build bridges between all participants: orchard laborers, packing house staff, business owners, orchardists and our students.

The culmination of “Harvesting Our Stories” would involve teaching students and community members the traditional Mexican art form “papel picado,” in which images emerge as paper is cut away. All of the paper cuts created would have something to do with Hood River Valley fruit. The completed artwork would be cut into steel and the metal murals would be hung in the school.

The day we received word that we had won was a day of varied emotions — thrilling excitement followed by anxiety. We had won the money — now we had to deliver the goods.

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Thirteen months after receiving the grant, I can happily say we have delivered almost all of the goods we set out to, and discovered many new goods that aspire to being “great.” It has been a phenomenal experience. Here is a brief recap of the year, taken from a journal I kept.

February 2012: Fourth- and fifth-graders tour Duckwall and meet Fred Duckwall. Armed with cameras, they try to take videos and still photos of the workers in the packing house sorting, cleaning, stickering and packing the fruit. The packing line works so fast that their movements are merely a blur. Up in Duckwall’s board room, students get the opportunity to interview Fred and one of the students’ moms, who has worked on the packing line for years.

April 2012: Casey Housen, from the The History Museum of Hood River County, comes to school to share a bit of Hood River Valley fruit history. A highlight is a competition in which the kids have to wrap and pack pears into old-fashioned wooden fruit boxes.

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Field trip to the Fruit Company: We toured an exhibit of historic fruit machinery, which included tractors, spray equipment and packinghouse equipment. We saw a demonstration of how the company makes and packs their gift baskets. Some of the workers are relatives and acquaintances of our kids. We watched a movie about the pear industry, and ate Hood River apples.

Another inspiring day! I spoke at the Migrant Parents’ meeting about Harvesting Our Stories. Many parents filled out my short questionnaire about what they do in the fruit industry. Afterwards we all listened to Francisco Jimenez, author of “The Circuit,” who spoke in Spanish about his experiences as a migrant farm worker. We estimate more than 300 people came to hear him speak.

Took a small group of fifth graders to Kennedy’s orchard today. We saw blossoms, graftings and a 100-year-old tree! We also saw a new method of applying pesticides — it’s like a small snap bracelet that supposedly prevents moths from mating.

May 2012: I’m delighted to learn that a local company, Champion Tool, will be able to cut our steel mural. I met with the owner, Garin Buckles, who had lots of good ideas.

I had a “Papel Picado” booth at the annual Mid Valley Carnival. Lots of people stopped by the booth to cut images and learn about the grant. Later in the month I introduced fourth and fifth grades to the medium of paper cutting. It is really difficult for some of them. I’m feeling a bit anxious about creating the mural.

July 2012: First day of Migrant summer school. I am working with kids entering third, fourth, fifth and sixth grades. They began by making sketches of everything they know about the fruit industry in the Hood River Valley. The kids are pretty knowledgeable about what happens in the orchards. One kid even talked about blossoms and pollination. Not too surprising; these kids and their parents live and work in the orchards.

Field trip to the Yasui cherry sorting operation with all the kids: The students seemed really interested in the process. A few kids saw their relatives working there. From there we traveled to Packer’s, a fruit stand that makes all their baked goods using pear syrup, as well as jams. I like the kids seeing the sequencing of the agricultural industry here.

Two amazing, exhausting days: Every kid designed his or her paper cut, and except for the youngest ones, everyone cut their own designs, with help from my amazing high school helpers Vanessa and Korey. I’ve also gotten incredible help from my friend Virginia Flynn, a paper cut artist extraordinaire.

We have a wonderful variety of images — testimonial to the fact that these migrant summer school kids do know about the fruit industry, from forklifts to sugar meters. I also received a giant stack of homework with stories from the kids’ parents about the work they do. I would love to see this made into a book with the paper cuts as illustrations.

Some summer school teachers completed pieces and seem very proud of their work. July 24 is our big event — all the parents, as well as many Odellites that have been involved with the project, have been invited. Michoacan is catering the whole thing.

Fifty families fill out a survey about their access to the arts in Odell. To my surprise and delight, almost 100 percent of them would like to take an art class and learn about more art opportunities in the local community.

Fall 2012: I spent time this fall designing the panels. The cut paper pieces are being put together like a patchwork quilt. There is a nice balance of equipment, fruit and landscapes, as well as some blossoms and beneficial insects.

Meanwhile, our school’s advanced Spanish students translated all of the “stories” from the summer migrant program into English. It was an amazing project for this group. They learned about what folks do in the fruit industry, as well as becoming aware of the levels of literacy found in this population.

Jan. 31, 2013: Today was an exciting day. My principal and I took six kids over to Champion Tool to meet Garin Buckles and learn about his business. The highlight, of course, was watching the steel panel be cut from the computer images Garin created from my mock-up. We watched the laser as it moved over the steel and our images emerged.

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One journal entry is yet to be written. On Thursday evening, Feb. 28, the steel mural will be unveiled during our school’s annual art show and curriculum night. I hope that all the people who this project has touched — from the laborers who pick the fruit to the orchard owners who let us tour their ranches, to any Oregon tax payer who has helped fund the Oregon Arts Commission’s worthy projects — will attend.

The harvest is almost in; soon we will be able to taste the fruits of our labors.

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