The Arts are an extremely important part of daily life at The New Century School . . . and that’s true for all students, in all divisions, from preprimary right up through middle school. Earlier this year, the 2- and 3-year-olds in the Spanish immersion classrooms were treated to a visit by Baltimore multimedia artist Matt Muirhead.
Mr. Muirhead is originally from Ulverston in the Lake District in Northern England but came to the United States with his family in 1983. He was drawn to art after finding himself at a bit of a loose end after high school. He decided to make use of his long-time skill with drawing cartoons and went to work as an artist, a career he knew would hold his interest. He currently paints, does screen printing, makes musical instruments, and plays in a musical duo with his partner McKenzie.
A Long and Winding Art Form
TNCS preprimary teacher Laura Noletto (“Sra. Lala”) invited Mr. Muirhead to present his “crankie,” a storytelling art form originating in the 19th century when it was known as a “moving panorama.” Picture a scroll wound onto two spools, all housed inside a box (or suitcase, for example). The scroll is illustrated and attached to a crank; as the crank is turned, a visual story literally unwinds. The storytelling is typically enhanced by narration and music, or even puppets, in Mr. Muirhead’s case. Sounds pretty neat, right?
Baltimore is home to Crankie Fest, a celebration of these scrolling beauties, established by another Baltimore artist, Kathleen Fahey. The 5th annual Crankie Fest happened in January at the Creative Alliance, with Mr. Muirhead participating along with a host of other crankie artists. (*See a video from the 2016 Crankie Fest below.)
Sra. Lala explains that she was first introduced to crankies when she came to Baltimore: “As an art researcher and an educator, I was fascinated with this form of art that is like a sculpture mixed with music mixed with painting that moves like a musical box with the artist telling a story or a narrative,” she said. “Mr. Muirhead’s crankies are like love letters to Baltimore—he is painting landmarks, like Patterson Park and Penn Station, and telling the story of Baltimore.” She explains that although all crankies are built on the same basic principles, they vary widely in construction, especially in the crank mechanism. Having attended the 2018 Crankie Fest, she has seen quite a number of crankies but considers Mr. Muirhead’s the most advanced she has ever seen. “The crankie culture is growing,” said Sra. Lala, “and I think we’re going to see it more. It’s blooming.”
Artists in the Classroom
Seeing the crankie culture spreading and flourishing coupled with wanting to do something special for TNCS preprimary students for Valentine’s Day gave Sra. Lala an idea: “Bringing [Mr. Muirhead] and his crankie to TNCS was to show the kids their city and celebrate it. I thought it would show them where they are, where we’re living. He makes a lot of references to the city and uses a lot of color.” “A Walk through Baltimore” (working title) features a cat puppet strolling through Baltimore neighborhoods and encountering other animals to the accompaniment of a kalimba (also known as thumb piano, marímbula, and mbira) attached to the crankie. To make the story age appropriate for TNCS preprimary students, Mr. Muirhead simply slowed things down a bit and interacted with his audience. “The crankie was also an educational tool,” explained Sra. Lala, “because we would name the animals in Spanish—perro, gato—during the presentation.”
Mr. Muirhead says he enjoyed bringing his crankie to TNCS. “It was so great,” he said. “Those kids are adorable. Although I had heard it was difficult to keep 2-year-olds’ attention, they were really into it.”
Sra. Lala hopes to expose her students to more art and artists and vice versa. She sees great potential in this interaction:
I’m always interested when an artist meets very young children because in many ways they are similar in how they see life. Both groups are in love with life and very sensitive and perceptive, so they get along naturally well. This has been a great opportunity to see what happens, and it worked wonderfully—you can see how focused and attentive the children are. At TNCS, we have an alternative way of teaching, and this is an example. [Mr. Muirhead] got really inspired by the dynamic, so now we know we can bring other artists in Baltimore to connect with the students. Everyone was very happy about it.
Although this was her first such “experiment” at TNCS, Sra. Lala did similar things at the college where she taught in Venezuela. “By the end of my experience I had 30 artists at the school,” she recounts. “That took a while to get to know the community, to find the artists, and make the connections, but I love that as an educator. It’s very inspiring for both ends because my students helped the artists create, and the artists got an appreciative audience.”
She envisions having local artists join her classroom at TNCS at least a few times a year going forward, given the success of Mr. Muirhead’s visit and the wonder inspired by “A Walk through Baltimore.”
Here is “A Walk through Baltimore” in its original, non-slowed-down form. Prepare to be mesmerized.
And, if you need to see it in person, Mr. Muirhead will be one of the featured artists at Nights on the Fringe, “a weekend-long curated cabaret hosted by Charm City Fringe, June 8th and 9th.” You can also see his paintings on display at The Charmery in Hampden and at Java Joe’s in downtown Baltimore. For even more art by Matt Muirhead, follow mattmuirheadartist on Instagram.
*Want more crankie?