Harnessing the Sun for New Kinds of Photosynthesis

Fifth-grader Jake H. had been lying still for about seven minutes with his arm extended over a portion of his group’s sun print mural on the Lower School playground, and he had just about had it.

About 10 feet away, the other group of fifth-graders had about six students frozen over parts of their mural, and a cluster of kids had formed around them and broken into song. The medley included “Let It Snow,” “Frosty The Snowman” and, because why not, a recent Adele number.

“I’m not getting paid enough for this,” Jake said. A classmate helpfully pointed out, “You’re not getting paid at all.”

“Yeah,” Jake said. “That’s exactly what I mean.”

 

Despite the gross injustice, Jake soldiered on for the sake of art, and the value of his sacrifice became clear when the classes came back in to art teacher Lori Hunter’s room, and visiting Artist in Residence Patricia Scialo rinsed out the photosensitive fabric and unveiled it to the students.

One mural depicted an undersea theme, complete with long-tentacled jellyfish, while the other showed space, and included a ghostly arm holding a telescope. The fabric works like film, and the parts shielded from the sun by, for example, Jake’s arm, stay white while the rest of the exposed fabric turns a deep blue color, giving the process its name: cyanotype.

Made possible by funds provided by Project Arts and a generous anonymous donation, friend and photography teacher Donna Wilcox invited Scialo to Country Day, and in addition to making sun prints with the fifth and second grade, Scialo helped Diane Wilikofsky’s sixth-graders make pinhole cameras out of oatmeal containers. “We’re reinventing using historic techniques,” she said, “and the results are fascinating. With these relatively primitive tools, you’re capable of creating effects that just wouldn’t otherwise be possible.”

“The kids are always totally amazed that it works,” said Scialo. “And it’s fun for me, because I still am too.”