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Ready - go - SET!

Martins Ferry High School set design classes hit stride

April 28, 2013
By SHAUNNA DUNDER HERSHBERGER - Lifestyles Editor ( , Times Leader

Whatever you do, don't call Anna Vingia an "art teacher." Sure, even though some shuffling of her schedule a few years ago at Martins Ferry High School resulted in her teaching classes that many would consider artistic, she simply shrugs off the title. "I don't feel comfortable with the title," she stated. "People think of art teachers as drawing and things like that, and that's not what we do."

Vingia, who has been a teacher at Martins Ferry for 17 years, actually does have a minor in art, and a major in home economics, but she really found her niche in the art world, like it or not.

"About 14 years ago, one of the principals contacted me and wanted to bring plays back," she explained, stating that the school hadn't put on plays for a long time. The music teacher was responsible for the acting and directing, and Vingia was responsible for the set design. At first, she started with one class and worked out of the small foods room at the former high school location. Gradually, a second class was added.

Article Photos

Students in Anna Vingia’s set design class at Martins Ferry High School work on props for the upcoming prom on May 4 with the theme “Candyland.”Some of bigger undertakings in the project were the gumdrop roof and life-sized Candyland game board. Standing are Tyler Lenz and Thomas Crupe. Seated is Starr Wise.

At the start, the class was just something she "sort of designed in her head as it went along." They used no textbooks and had no real itinerary.

After the new high school complex was built and the faculty and students relocated there, Vingia said she had two set design classes, an art I class and a foods class. She noticed that a lot of the art I students were drawing portraits and doing traditional art. "A lot of kids couldn't do that," she said. "They just can't draw - they're not artistic in that way."

Vingia approached school guidance counselor Vicki Falcone with an idea to talk to the eighth grade classes to see if there would be any interest in having an introductory set design class. After speaking with the eighth grade students, Vingia was surprised to learn that nearly 90 students were interested.

For the most part, the set design classes at MFHS drifted away from designing sets for school plays. Now they build sets for events like homecomings, proms, academic awards, community and church events and benefit dinners. The classes are currently working on projects for the upcoming prom on May 4, which has the theme "Candyland."

The introductory class teaches students some very basic creative principles, including working with glue guns and X-Acto knives, while the regular and advanced set design classes delve into more difficult projects as students learn techniques to create the illusion of depth, the use of color and lines and basic theater staging.

These classes act as a good creative outlet for students who don't like to draw with pencil and paper, but still wish to do something creative. Set design is not strictly artistic, according to Vingia. "I always like to say it's a cross between the industrial arts and art," she explained, "They do so much measuring, anyone can make a beautiful pillar without having much knowledge of art."

The first project for a student taking the introductory set design class? Make a box. Vingia said this basic exercise can teach students many techniques right from the start, including gluing, cutting, painting and understanding the color wheel to help blend the paint. Next year, Vingia also plans to add teaching students the principles of design.

In addition, the shop class helps out with making some of the structures. Everything made by the set design classes are made out of cardboard or paper mache. Students learn to make pillars as one of their first set projects. Pillars, Vingia explained, are just round tubes with cardboard rings inside to reinforce the structure. The edges are paper mached and then decorated. Pillars can be made any size, all made the same way, and it's a great exercise to get students off and running to a point where Vingia can then trust them to complete more advanced tasks.

The class itself is more a collaboration between the teacher and students, and is not so much facilitator led. Before an event the classes design sets for, Vingia leads a brainstorming session. For the Candyland project, students brainstormed about the type of candy they wanted to make and how those things could be made. Sometimes projects are put on transparency and enlarged to give the students a little extra help. Difficult projects are planned on paper. She designs an instruction plan, and then she and the students check it over to make sure it's right before proceeding.

"Sometimes, I will give them a set of instructions and walk them through," Vingia said. Sometimes, she will simply give a set of instructions to a student and ask them if they can build it without asking questions. "The students will then come back and say, 'Well this didn't make sense,' so they're entrusted to help with the process," she explained.

What Vingia likes about this class is that projects get geared towards everyone at every skill level. "Everyone has a project, everyone's happy, everyone feels special about their project - for beginners and advanced," she stated. "I try to keep them all involved that way."

The set classes build just about anything they are able, and Vingia says that she can pretty much look at something and know in her mind how to build it. Some projects are traditional, like building a set of numbers for this year's graduation, or "old school" tissue paper flowers, like the class is utilizing for Candyland. The class is also making trees with a chicken wire frame and tissue paper leaves, ice cream cones, a life-sized Candyland game board, a gumdrop roof, a gumball machine, and various other candy treats. Last year, the classes built a 16 foot high Eiffel Tower for homecoming, including six foot tall accompanying figures. They also built the front end of a prop 1920's style car.

Over the years, all of these projects accumulate, and with numerous props stored in more than one location both on and off the school complex, Vingia is hoping that the group can have a yard sale this summer to get rid of their excess items. She's also hoping to get a Facebook page up and running at some point to post photos of some of the items they have in storage.

What once started as a class with seemingly no direction has snowballed quickly into a unique program for the school. The set design program at Martins Ferry is one of the few - if not the only- like it in Ohio at the high school level. In fact, when the school began writing content standards for the classes, Vingia said they had to go to the college level for guidelines. Even kids from some of the bigger schools in the area who transfer in have not heard of set design until they get to Martins Ferry, according to Vingia.

"Now we're good at what we do," Vingia said with a smile, as she stood inside a storage room filled to the ceiling with painted, glittery paper structures.

Just don't call her an art teacher.



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