The SMK8 Arts Magnet School Easel-Bench Project


“What is landscape architecture? It all started with a discussion centering around that question at the beginning of the year in my class,” said South Miami K8 Expressive Arts Magnet teacher Laurie Russell. Months later, the Easel-Bench project came about, providing a living answer to the question through a project that renewed the courtyard adjacent to the school’s arts studios and involved over 60 students, 15 parents and teachers.

The community outreach partnership between the SMK8 Arts Magnet school and FIU Landscape Architecture transformed an outdoor courtyard at the art, music, dance, and drama school with new plantings and furnishings, including four benches that function as easels, and worktables for various mixed-media exercises, plein-air painting, and portrait drawing. The design, in effect, doubles the classroom space and facilitates arts education that engages the outdoor environment. 3rd, 4th and 5th grade students, who saw the idea evolve from an initial sketch, spent a day painting the benches and finally enjoying the finished space.

“It is a great satisfaction to see that my son is contributing to something for others. He not only saw how a group can come together but he also got to share with the people in his community” said Barbara Cunningham, mother of a 5th grade student who collaborated in painting the bright red benches.

One of only five elementary arts magnet programs in the United States, the South Miami K-8 Center visual arts program offers students who are talented in art an opportunity to receive highly specialized training. These students are fully exposed to the natural environment, museums, galleries, and to the local art community. In the Easel-Bench project, students were not only involved in the design process, but they also saw how the initial concepts, details, and ideas of a project can come to life.

“What I think is really exciting for kids is to be exposed not only to different careers, but to the exercise of thinking both critically and creatively. I think this is what this kind of project exposes kids to,” said Russell about the whole initiative of the project. Ms. Russell, a beloved teacher who has been dedicated to her SMK8 students for more than a decade, was the main collaborator in the Easel-Bench project.

FIU Landscape Architecture students worked under the design leadership of FIU Associate Professor and Chair of the Landscape Architecture program, Roberto Rovira. Participants included SMK8 parents and teachers, the FIU Student Chapter of the ASLA, and FIU Landscape and Architecture students, Chris Cabezas, Amanda Vargas Love, Andrea Sandoval, Phillip Byrnes, Kevin Arrieta, Leah Davis, John Gioello, Fiorella Mavares, and Matt Peterson. Fabrication assistance was under the direction of Adjunct Faculty and Director of FIU’s School of Architecture Fabrication Lab, Eric Peterson.

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