The Tree of Learning takes new form

The Enterprise — Tyler Murphy

An artist’s signature: Kris Hauser, of Slingerlands, shows the tag he’s about to apply to his sculpture. He says he’s been “a voluminous doodler” all his life, creating abstract shapes and forms and a unique cast of cartoon characters. These he has formulated into a story that he calls the Kozmik Sirkus — that’s what the KS on his label stands for.

NEW SCOTLAND — The iconic emblem for the Heldeberg Workshop — a boy reading a book while comfortably perched in the crotch of a tree — has now taken a three-dimensional form.

To memorialize art teacher Jean Johnson, who drew the emblem, Kris Hauser used materials discarded by the workshop to create a stunning sculpture, dedicated last week.

Johnson based her sketch on a photograph, taken in the early 1960s, of Ed Rosen, a workshop student, engrossed in reading E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. Rosen was reading in a pine tree near Voorheesville’s high school, where the workshop was held before it moved to the land at the foot of the Helderberg escarpment.

“He said it was an exciting time for the workshop, with thrilling things happening, like space exploration and burgeoning science,” said the program for the Aug. 15 dedication. “He expressed that the ‘hero’ of the Heldeberg Workshop was its founder, Jean Pauly.”

“The founding mothers had no educational background, yet they created this world-class program,” said Bill Morrison, the president of the workshop’s board. “They met at Jean Pauly’s kitchen table,” he said of the workshop pioneers, one of whom was Johnson.

Some of Morrison’s kids were in the first class of the workshop, which is in its 53rd year. Pauly “liked Jean very much,” Morrison said, “and put her in charge of developing the art program.”

Johnson, who died on Aug. 14, 2011 at the age of 81, founded the art program in the 1960s and was the workshop’s art director for a decade.

Johnson taught art to people at both ends of the age spectrum. After graduating from Bethlehem High School, she studied art history at Russell Sage College, and then continued her art education for the rest of her life, traveling around the world with friends or family, visiting museums, galleries, and historical sites.

After raising her two children, she taught art and ceramics at the Senior Services Center of Albany, and created the art education program for the Town of Guilderland Seniors, arranging a yearly exhibit of her students’ work at the Guilderland Public Library.

Johnson’s own artwork often won awards at local shows. She was also an artist with her yard, creating intricate rock gardens at her home, which inspired some of her paintings.

It’s appropriate for an outdoor program — “An Adventure in Learning” — that stresses harmony with the natural world to have a sculpture made of recycled materials.

Kris Hauser, a recent graduate of Hartwick College in Oneonta, where he studied sculpture and glass-blowing, thought he could create something with arched support pipes that once held a tarp over the workshop’s theater.

“We had a disaster on our stage,” said Morrison of the collapse in the winter of 2011 when the support pipes buckled.

Hauser discovered the material when he and his father, Doug, a board member, were going to cart them away.

Then, when an old wood-burning stove at the workshop was no longer useful, Kris Hauser came up with the idea of using the old stove and discarded pipes to sculpt a memorial for Johnson.

“He hammer-stressed the pipes and made them sprout and arch from the hole for the flue on top of the stove, simulating a tree,” said the memorial program. “From these ‘branches,’ he attached ‘leaves’ of crumpled pieces of copper sheeting, which will turn green on exposure to the environment. He used a plasma cutter to cut from sheet metal a representative ‘child’ to attach to the tree.”

Doug Hauser then came up with this wording for a plaque: “From the Warm Hearth of Family, the Embers of Knowledge Nurture the Tree of Learning. Dedicated to Jean Johnson, 1930 – 2011, Friend of the Heldeberg Workshop.”

In May, the sculpture was placed on a block of limestone from Decorative Natural Stone of Voorheesville, where it now stands across from the workshop flagpole.

Morrison hopes the Tree of Learning will live and grow for a long time.

“The workshop is very important to me…I’m pleased it survived so long,” he said. “I hope it never gets to the point, ‘This is the best we can do.’ That’s what the founders envisioned — no end point.”

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