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Arnold fourth-graders explore identity through art with help of artist-in-residence
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Arnold fourth-graders explore identity through art with help of artist-in-residence

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Most people call it the office: the place in school where secretaries man the desk and teachers have their mail cubbies, where all visitors make the first stop and the door to the principal’s office beckons.

In Kaeden Lehr’s world it has a different name: The Land of Terror.

The Land of Terror — a name the loquacious Kaeden gets a pretty big kick out of — is part of the world he’s drawing in his fourth-grade art class, one that starts at his desk, his Chromebook, the pinch pots he and his classmates made and an animal book.

“I love to read,” he explains.

It fans out from there, to his teacher’s desk, and to the gym and music room, the nurse’s office (with three beds), other teachers’ rooms, a display case and the public library attached to Arnold Elementary School.

The best part of this art project so far, at least for one fourth-grader, is the creative naming of the office, a place he explains he’s had to visit twice in two years and that includes the “mega-torturous talking phone” because that’s what those in the Land of Terror use to call students' parents.

Kaeden is creating his world (where two visits to the office seem to have sparked his imagination but otherwise left his psyche intact) as part of a project led by artist Owen Buffington in the fourth-grade art room.

Buffington, an artist-in-residence at the Lux Center for the Arts, is spending the quarter working with Arnold fourth-graders through the Lincoln Arts Council’s Art Makes Me SmART program.

As part of that, he came up with a project that explores the yearlong school theme of identity.

The artist’s own work explores the intersection of geography and the visual arts, using maps, blueprints, plans and diagrams to leverage his own experience and create works that illustrate the “messiness of lived experience over the tidiness of idealized space.”

Kim Boone, a veteran teacher at Arnold who lives in Air Park, has long been fascinated by the area’s history and liked the idea of letting her students explore their identity in the context of their school and neighborhood. 

The project encourages students to think about the place they live in and their own place inside it, Buffington said.

“It’s not just a map that shows how to get from point A to point B, but what it’s like to live in A and B,” he said.

Ultimately, Buffington said, he wants kids to think not just about how “place” informs who they are, but its history and how they can influence that space.

Or at least to plant a seed that will ultimately help them understand the role they can play in their environment. In the short term, he wants them to look for detail that says something about their identity in the place they live and learn.

It’s why Tiffani Do has drawn her desk and her friend’s desks and the hallway leading to the rest of the world.

It prompted Chiara Igoma to carefully draw and color her desk and her friend’s desk and the lockers lining the hallway. It’s why she drew a favorite book in detail: the one about the girl who is turned into a frog.

Boone has shared bits of the story of Air Park, the far-northwest Lincoln neighborhood that was once an air base, to give students a sense of its rich history and their place in it.

The students have done other projects related to the identity theme, and near the end of the year, all 125 Arnold fourth-graders will gather their work and board a bus to a retirement community in Lincoln. There, they will curate their own art show for the residents as part of the Lincoln Arts Council program.

Artist in residence

Caleb Petrik draws roads on his person map Monday during art class at Arnold Elementary School. Petrik is going to include school, his neighborhood, roads, cars and pedestrians on his map.

Fourth-graders typically learn about curating an art show as part of their art class but rarely have the opportunity to actually do it with their own art, Boone said.

“This is a great way for our kids to make connections to our community,” she said.

By the time they finish their project with Buffington, their art will include not just their school, but places in the neighborhood.

Chiara is thinking about including a path to the lake where she gets picked up after school.

Kaeden is thinking bigger.

“I’m thinking of doing the whole world,” he said. “Who knows what other ‘Land of Terrors’ there will be?”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or

On Twitter @LJSreist.


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Local government reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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