The Art of the Trades: A Renaissance at Cuyahoga Falls High School

Guest Post \
April 25, 2019

This is a guest post by Holly Bloom, a GAR Educator Initiative Grant recipient. Holly is an English and Welding teacher at Cuyahoga Falls High School in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.

It’s no surprise that our global, national, and regional economies are shifting. Although “tracking” is a term and practice of the past as we embrace College and Career readiness, there still seems to be some lingering social stigma attached to “the shop kids” and the “dirty jobs” they work after high school. With the skyrocketing cost of university tuition it is time to break that stigma and introduce students who may never have walked into a shop class to have some exposure to the skilled trades. We have an overall shortage of skilled laborers in this country and as the baby boom generation continues to retire, this deficit in the work force will grow. According to a 2018 Gallup poll, 45% of employers report that they cannot fill positions in the trades.

The Renaissance Coalition create a sculptural tree at Cuygahoga Falls High School

In 2018, I teamed up with Jennifer Schulman, the arts educator to create The Renaissance Coalition, a Public Art elective course for advanced welding and advanced 3D art students at Cuygahoga Falls High School. With the support of our administration and an Educator Initiative Grant, we are able to offer a class that blends the Fine and Industrial Arts and provides students with the fundamental skills necessary to pursue a career in these fields after they graduate from high school. Working together, students use critical thinking skills and authentic problem solving to figure out how to combine metals, glass, clay, and cement into aesthetically pleasing and stable structures.

The Renaissance Coalition installs a sculptural tree at Cuygahoga Falls High School

The student make-up of this classroom is unique, combining two types of students who wouldn’t normally be in the same classroom with collaboration as the goal. Hiring managers in many local metal fabrication and manufacturing shops have told us that the needs of the industry are reliability, pride in workmanship, time management, accountability, lifestyle habits, and interpersonal relationship skills. This experience is designed to address these needs with social acceptance, tolerance, and the value of contribution, perseverance and respect at the forefront.

It was a bit awkward at first, and the class was very divided. Then a few weeks into the semester, we had welders teaching artists to weld and artists teaching welders principles of design. And by the end of the semester, we had some students who came to the class from the art path spending the majority of their time working on the fabrication of the sculptures down in the metals shop, and a few of the kids who had taken all of their electives in the Industrial Arts building, spending most of their time in the art room working with clay, glass and a variety of other mediums designing and creating art.

In our first semester, we were able to create several pieces of public art for our high school campus, including a sculptural tree made with welded steel pipe and painted concrete rocks, which is the first installation of what will be a Peace Garden on the high school campus. Also completed, but not yet installed, are a series of ceramic totems on poles which will make their home in the Cuyahoga Falls Fresh Farm. We also created “The Falls of Change,” a sculpture representing the history and impact of the Cuyahoga River which was featured at the Western Reserve Hospital.  

The Falls of Change, created by students at Cuyahoga Falls High School

Now, this collaboration of Fine Art and Industrial Arts students are bringing their skills together to create public art installations throughout the City of Cuyahoga Falls. Our students are now working with officials in the City of Cuyahoga Falls, learning about zoning regulations in preparation for next fall when they will really go public and install steel and mixed media sculptures to add their own original touch to the beautiful new Cuyahoga Falls Riverfront Renaissance.

Students present their sculpture at the Western Reserve Hospital

Reviving our “Tiger Pride” through art offers students the opportunity to see their fabrication skills not just in the isolated piece of work, a class or on a production line, but how it fits into the fabric of the greater economic system. Just as the city is experiencing a renaissance right now, so are the fine arts and industrial arts departments at Cuyahoga Falls High School.