A Healing Machine for the Elementary School Classroom

Students gather in School Within School's elementary studio to view their healing machine.

If you have visited SAAM's folk and self-taught art galleries since they re-opened in October, you probably encountered Emery Blagdon's wondrous Healing Machine, an installation of individual paintings and found-material sculptures suspended from the ceiling. Blagdon spent the last three decades of his life creating this piece in a small building on his Nebraska farm, believing it to have healing properties that could alleviate suffering. While many museum visitors are moved by The Healing Machine, Blagdon's work found a new life this winter in an elementary school about two miles from the SAAM.

"I think seeing the work of other artists gives children a sense of possibility and inspiration for their own work," said Erika Bowman, the elementary "atelierista" at School Within School, a Reggio Emilia-inspired school in Northeast DC As such, she teaches in a studio space in the school where students are encouraged to tinker and create with a variety of materials. Feeling overwhelmed by a divisive political climate this past fall, Bowman found herself wishing for healing in the world, leading her to wonder what type of healing the children would want to see. She was introduced to Blagdon's work through a PBS documentary, and was inspired to have her students build a healing machine of their own for the school's annual winter solstice celebration.

"The children were first exposed to a slideshow of Emery Blagdon's work and listened to a bit about his background and life," Bowman said. "Then they were posed the question, 'If you could make a machine that could heal anything, what would you want it to heal?' From there, the children envisioned their ideas through drawing and speaking about their designs."

Students said they wanted to help people suffering from diseases like diabetes and cancer, stop hunger, and heal sadness and anger in the world. They each created their own unique healing object using materials available in the studio, and the final products were installed around the studio for the children to see on the day of the winter solstice.

"It was immensely rewarding to see the final installation of all of the children's machines hung on wires throughout the studio illuminated by colorful lights," said Bowman. "I think the children experienced a sense of surprise and awe when they walked into the space. The children called out their wishes and sang songs together under the twinkling lights to honor the moment."

Bowman's full account of the project, along with photos and videos, can be seen on her blog, The Elementary Atelier.

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