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Making Room For The Artist In School

Teacher Encourages Students to ‘Put Their Hearts Out There’

East Grand Rapids Middle School art teacher Holly Lampen was planning a “frog apocalypse.” Ninety paper-mache amphibians will soon hang from the school ceilings and climb up the walls.

Students chewed more than 30,000 pieces of gum to create a mural of pop-artist Katie Perry with artist Tim Powers
Students chewed more than 30,000 pieces of gum to create a mural of pop-artist Katie Perry with artist Tim Powers

“We are going to invade the school,” she said, as her students slathered newspaper with a gluey solution onto their frogs. When dried and painted, the frogs will surprise non-art students with their sudden presence.

“90 frogs!” squealed seventh-grader Carrie Kirchgessner.

Lampen, who has taught art in the district for 18 years, has a reputation for making school fun with her creativity and tendency to set students loose with projects.

Art is all over the place at the school, with student-created murals stretching across hallways and unique pieces scattered throughout the building. Many were made in collaboration with professional artists commissioned by the district through grants from the East Grand Rapids Schools Foundation. Many have touched the greater Grand Rapids community in some way.

For East Grand Rapids Middle School, Art is a Community-Builder

  • Students have broken down 30 wheelchairs with the late Dennis Theisen, a local artist and professor at Kendall College of Art and Design, to make sculptures and raise money for Alternatives in Motion, which provides used wheelchairs and repair services to families in need.
  • They’ve worked with Tim Powers, who has created art for the Grand Rapids Art Museum, on a bubble-gum portrait of pop-artist Katie Perry. The kids chewed over 30,000 pieces of gum to create the piece in 2013.
  • They’ve created a printmaking mural with ArtPrize artist Melissa Duimstra, for which more than 200 students brought in images from their school career to use to create prints.
  • They’ve created banners for DeVos Children’s Hospital with local artist Reb Roberts.
  • They installed a mural, stretching across a hallway inside the school, that 600 sixth- through eighth-grade students created with help from artist Corey Van Duinen. It incorporates symbols from the school, city, Reeds Lake and extracurricular activities.
  • They created banners that wave in the parking lot with two local graphic designers, Mike and Yolanda Gorman, who own Mr & Mrs design firm.
  • They created two 5-feet-tall duct-tape bears, made of packing peanut and duct tape for last year’s Hearts of Gold football game in honor of the chosen organization Billy Bear Hug.
  • This year for Hearts of Gold, they are recreating the Ele’s Place logo in origami in honor of this year’s fundraising recipient, Ele’s Place, a healing place for grieving children and teens.

Finding Her Place

Lampen is reflective about why she works hard to connect students to the school and community through art. It goes back to the time she decided school just wasn’t for her anymore.

Frustrated by the rigidity of school and her lack of passion for it, she bounced from high school to high school, before one day finally dropping off her books and declaring herself “done.” She finished up her credits at an alternative high school and graduated early.

“I knew I wanted to do art, and I was frustrated because I couldn’t get enough art in my school day,” Lampen said.

She was a free spirit who wanted to use her hands and create, she recalled. She felt confined in traditional school. She was an out-of-the-box thinker who didn’t always view things in black-and-white terms.

Instead, she’s colorful in every way, from her clothes, to her bright handmade jewelry to the vibrancy she brings to the middle school, where she has spent nine years.

“Some of the kids know my story because they struggle in school,” Lampen said.

She said she had never really talked about what led her down her career path from high-school rebel to compassionate teacher, though she envisioned where she was headed at a young age. In sixth-grade, Lampen wrote down her goals for a time-capsule project.

“I wanted to be an artist and a babysitter,” she said. “I always liked being around kids better than in a studio.”

Now, reaching students with art that touches the community is her way of filling the void she felt as a student. She wants them to feel like there’s room for “The Artist” in the school makeup of athletes and academic superstars.

“It grabs the kids who don’t play sports and it gets them active in school spirit,” she said.

“Art is a human way of connecting. When you put your visual beliefs and ideas out there to the public, it’s like putting your heart out there.”

“Holly develops connections with her students in so many positive ways,” Stuursma said. “She simply ‘gets’ kids. She meets them at their level and develops mutual respect.”Principal Peter Stuursma said Lampen has a special way of relating to students.

Mairead Steketee, a 2015 East Grand Rapids High School graduate, was one of those students with whom Lampen could relate.

“Going through middle school was very tough for me,” Steketee said. “Mrs. Lampen helped guide me through my worst years and continued to be a major support in my life then and now, almost five years after leaving the school. She encouraged me to follow my dreams as they evolved and I grew as an artist and student, telling me about potential opportunities in the art world outside of the East Middle School hallways. Mrs. Lampen has impacted my life and many other students’ lives greatly.”

After receiving her high school diploma, Lampen headed to the Rhode Island School of Design, where she thrived. The flexibility and chance to pursue her dream as an artist was what she needed. She specialized in painting, but now focuses on sculpture of all kinds with her students because, she says, they love it.

Holly Lampen has inspired many students to find the artist in themselves
Holly Lampen has inspired many students to find the artist in themselves

Art Can Open Up Horizons

Lampen said she likes to connect with students in a way that allows them to pull out the artist in themselves and embrace possibilities.

“Doing art helps kids see there are many solutions to one problem, and working with other people you can accomplish some pretty monumental tasks,” she said. “It comes back to where my struggles in school were when there was always one right or wrong answer. I always felt like there were more possibilities than right or wrong.

“In art, there are thousands of possibilities,” she said. “Art is about process rather than the final product.”

Lampen knows how to motivate students throughout that process, said East Grand Rapids High School art teacher Terry Szpieg.

East Grand Rapids Middle School art teacher Holly Lampen works on paper mache frogs with seventh-grader Carrie Kirchgessner
East Grand Rapids Middle School art teacher Holly Lampen works on paper mache frogs with seventh-grader Carrie Kirchgessner

“Holly has established an authentic program that provides the students with so many ways to creatively engage,” he said. “From the everyday activities that ultimately lead her students to new creative skill-sets, to the variety of legacy projects that she has completed with a number of guest-artists; Holly is a role model for students, teachers and community members. She is so good with her students, on every level. Her talent for teaching, depth of knowledge, ability to communicate that knowledge to her students and unwavering patience are incredible qualities to maintain. ”

Student Dillon White made the biggest “bullfrog” in the seventh grade. He echoed Lampen’s sentiment about class.

“It’s really fun,” he said. “There’s no one answer like in every other class. You can do anything you want, pretty much.”

Lampen said she’s glad that message is getting through.

“It’s the doing and making of art that helps you grow and figure out who you are,” she said.


SNN Story About Middle School Mural

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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