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Creative carvers: Popular program at Norris School wraps up 22 years of work with final project

  • The woodcarving program at William E. Norris School, which wrapped a 22-year run this spring, has produced many projects over the years, including this sign that welcomes those who enter Norris in 11 different languages. Leslie diCurcio Marra

  • Artist and educator Elton Braithwaite, who has led a woodcarving program at William E. Norris School for 22 years, with sixth graders, from left, Katherine Simmons, Miguel Delgado, Kayla Bates, Matthew Cesare (who designed the carving), and Breanna Dale. The class produced a piece this spring called “Peace and Harmony,” which includes two trees with their branches forming a peace sign. Leslie diCurcio Marra

  • Artist and educator Elton Braithwaite and William E. Norris art teacher Leslie diCurcio Marra pose with a puppet theater carved by a past woodcarving class. Leslie diCurcio Marra

  • Students at William E. Norris School work on “Peace and Harmony,” this year’s woodcarving project under the guidance of artist and educator Elton Braithwaite. Leslie diCurcio Marra

  • A carving being completed by students at William E. Norris School under the guidance of artist and educator Elton Braithwaite. Leslie diCurcio Marra

  • A carving being completed by students at William E. Norris School under the guidance of artist and educator Elton Braithwaite. Leslie diCurcio Marra

  • The woodcarving program at William E. Norris School, which ended this year after 22 years, has produced many projects over the years, including this sign celebrating performance art. Leslie diCurcio Marra

  • Students at William E. Norris School work on “Peace and Harmony,” this year’s woodcarving project under the guidance of artist and educator Elton Braithwaite. Leslie diCurcio Marra

For the Gazette
Published: 6/18/2019 4:49:07 PM

SOUTHAMPTON — The evidence of a popular woodworking class is all around students and visitors to William E. Norris School, starting with a sign near the entrance shaped like a rising sun that reads “welcome” in 11 different languages.

In the school’s cafetorium, a painted mural honoring dance, music, and theatre sits over the stage.

Outside the gymnasium, there are statues of Greek athletes, and a puppet theater travels throughout the school for use in different classes.

Each of these works of art is the product of a long-held woodcarving class with artist and educator Elton Braithwaite. The program has been a part of Leslie diCurcio Marra’s art class each year since 1998, with funding over the years from both the Southampton Cultural Council and Norris School PTO.

But after 22 years, the program is coming to an end. Braithwaite taught his final class at Norris before he moves back to his native Jamaica to take care of his parents and continue teaching in schools at home.

According to diCurcio Marra, Norris’ entire sixth grade class, which typically includes between 75 and 80 students, collaborates on each year’s carving. All projects are on display or in use at the school.

Sixth grader Angelena Osiecki confirmed that the class is highly anticipated by students.

“I remember waking up in the morning on Monday and thinking, ‘It’s carving day,’” she said.

For the final carving this spring, sixth graders were asked to submit designs that demonstrated harmony with nature — a theme that builds upon their recent lessons about environmentalism. Matthew Cesare submitted a drawing of two trees with branches that formed a peace sign between them. DiCurcio Marra and Braithwaite adapted Cesare’s design for the final carving, entitled “Peace and Harmony.”

“It’s a true collaboration,” diCurcio Marra said of the project.

Although some students weren’t sure what to expect from the class, any curiosity or skepticism quickly gave way to eagerness once the weeklong carving began.

“Once I picked up the chisel, I could not stop,” said Angelena’s classmate Brandon Diaz.

DiCurcio Marra first met Braithwaite at the Paradise City Arts Festival, where they clicked immediately.

“It’s just been an excellent collaboration,” she said of the 22 years they have worked together at Norris. “We enjoy each other and what we each bring artistically to the table.”

Braithwaite began carving wood with a screwdriver sharpened into a chisel at 13. He left Jamaica for the United States in 1970, after winning first prize for artwork displayed in a festival in Montego Bay soon after Jamaica gained independence in 1962.

Braithwaite wants to see the younger generation get back into carving, which he calls “a dying art.” However, he also wants to see his students become respectful, hardworking human beings. DiCurcio Marra says that the “Determination, persistence, patience, and respect” that Braithwaite impresses on students is almost more valuable than his actual woodcarving lessons.

“He’s not just an artist saying ‘Here’s how I make my craft.’ He’s teaching about life,” said diCurcio Marra.

“I want to see them become great citizens of this country ... and of the world.” Braithwaite said in a phone interview.

Braithwaite also enjoys the opportunity to prepare graduating sixth graders for the new challenges they will face at Hampshire Regional High School.

“I send them off with a good message that the work is not done yet,” he said. “When you go there, you have to work twice as hard to achieve your goals.”

Although they realize that woodcarvers are few and far between in the Pioneer Valley, the sixth graders greatly value the skills Braithwaite has passed on.

“He wanted to leave a legacy behind for us so we could pass it along to other kids,” said Alexis Grullon.

Angelena assured the Gazette that she will cherish her memories of the woodcarving class for a while. She and classmate Julianne Moro remembered Braithwaite’s warning “not to hit too hard, but not to hit too soft” while carving. The sixth graders agree on the first rule of the craft: always carve away from you.

As for the current project students are wrapping up, DiCurcio Marra has asked them to keep an eye out around the school for a place to display “Peace and Harmony.”

The carving is the tangible legacy that the last woodcarving class will leave with Norris.




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