“We are all different fish but we all swim together!” shouted Discovery Elementary students, complete with hand motions.
Hundreds of students at Discovery, Bowen, Meadowlawn and Explorer elementary schools know the chant that goes with the ArtPrize piece “We Are All Different Fish But We All Swim Together.” They each recently made and contributed their own fish out of wood, clay, paint and glitter to create a giant wave of fish installed through Oct. 8 at the Holiday Inn Grand Rapids Downtown, 310 Pearl St. NW. At press time, the piece was among the Top 25 vote-getters in the installation category.
It’s about diversity, said artist and art teacher Jerry Berta, who is known for his colorful attire and signature plastic glasses. Kentwood students represent many different countries and speak many languages. The piece embraces those differences with a fish tale.
“It shows we all have different personalities. We are all different, but we are all the same too,” said fifth-grader Lexi Jackson, who made her fish sparkly with beads and scraps of wood.
“I like gluing things together and making things,” said fifth-grader Frankie Lape. “We might all be different but we can all be together.”
Other Kentwood teachers have gotten behind the effort, including elementary music teacher Ali Bendert who turned the chant into a song.
From Artist to Teacher
This is the third collaborative ArtPrize piece by Berta, who created a 36-by-12-foot mural, The Conversation –What Would They Say?, in 2015, featuring President Abraham Lincoln, President Barack Obama and civil rights leader theRev. Martin Luther King Jr. in front of an American flag. For that piece, Kentwood students added paint with their fingers and thumbs. For the piece “I Love My Beautiful Brain,” Berta worked with Muskegon Heights students in 2014.
Berta went into teaching after a long career in art which took interesting segues. He and his wife, Madeline Kaczmarczyk, are both studio ceramics artists. Berta bought and restored the iconic Rosie’s Diner, in Rockford, which he resold in 2004.
At the age many people consider retiring, Berta got his teaching certification from Aquinas College in 2012. Since then, he has taught elementary school at Muskegon Heights and Grand Rapids Ellington Academy of Arts and Technology before starting in Kentwood two years ago.
Now he’s happy to create fish and share messages of acceptance to students and the community through art. Every fish among the 1,000 or so the students created is different, and mixes with all the others to form a larger masterpiece.
“I say, ‘OK, make a fish’ and they do,” said Berta, noting that he’s seen many students take out-of-the box approaches to their pieces.
The current nationalistic, anti-immigrant political climate makes sharing his message all the more important, he said. “This is the perfect time for this.”