Sixth-grader Jasmine Saunders (center) and her former Morton Elementary art teacher Brad Vena (left) receive a Senate citation from state Sen. Williams for their work on the “Let Art Freedom Ring” Liberty Bells project.

HARRISBURG, JAN. 20, 2011 — The Liberty Bell is one of the ultimate symbols of freedom in this nation and it is a popular tourist attraction in Philadelphia, which made it a great source of inspiration for youthful artists.

Students from several area schools, including Thomas G. Morton Elementary School in state Sen. Anthony H. Williams’ district, recently participated in the “Let Art Freedom Ring” Liberty Bells project. Their goal: transform the symbol of the Liberty Bell into a unique work of art that would reflect their interpretation today of the meaning of freedom.

Five of those bells, including a glowing lantern created by the Morton Elementary fifth graders, are currently on display through Jan. 23 in the ornate Main Rotunda of the state Capitol.

Williams, who is a member of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, arranged for the Liberty Bells to come to the Capitol.

“This project has not just affected young artists, but young lives. The expression of art keeps a student in school and it accelerates their ability to learn,” Williams said. “They can connect what they are doing in the creative area with what they may be doing in other areas of their academic experiences.”

Let Art Freedom Ring” Liberty Bells program, a collaboration of the Philadelphia Arts in Education Partnership and the National Liberty Bell Museum, involved a unit of study about democracy, Philadelphia history, and civic responsibility. Students then worked with their art teacher and a teaching artist to create a 6-foot, 3-dimensional bell that reflects their ideas and visions of liberty in the 21st century.

“Our goal is to use the bells to be a representation of what students can do when they work together with a teacher and an artist in a meaningful way,” said Raye Cohen, director of education of the Philadelphia Arts in Education Partnership. “Not one bell looks like another. Each has its own distinct personality.”

The theme for the Liberty Bell designed by fifth graders at Thomas G. Morton Elementary School in Southwest Philadelphia is “We the Students.”

The theme for the Liberty Bell designed by fifth graders at Morton Elementary is “We the Students.”

The design was inspired by floats from Japan’s Nebuta festival, in which floats are lit from within and paraded around town to lift the hearts and spirits of the people. The students took this idea and created a roadmap of ordinary people who have done extraordinary things.

“It looks beautiful. We did some creative stuff,” said Jasmine Saunders, a sixth-grader at Tilden Middle School who worked on this particular Liberty Bell as a fifth-grader at Morton Elementary.

Jasmine explained that she and her classmates used rice paper and paint to craft the lantern-like bell, and they selected ordinary citizens and symbols to represent freedom and liberty, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, President Barack Obama and the Statue of Liberty.

The handprints strategically placed along the bottom of the bell represent the stars of the American flag. The young artists all autographed the top of the bell.

“I think it was awesome,” Jasmine said of her experience.

Morton Elementary art teacher Brad Vena said the students worked for six weeks on the project. He said he stepped aside to ensure that the children took the lead on the design.

“I’m very impressed,” Vena said. “The driving force of this project was how ordinary people can do extraordinary things, and the kids clicked with that. They got a sense of fulfillment, seeing something from start to finish.”

Brian Elstein, the artist who worked with the students on this project and who spent time in Japan, introduced the children to this form of artwork.

Elstein said the project will help the students retain the lessons they learned and applied into their Liberty Bell.

“It’s fantastic… This project gave the students a foundation to attach all that they’re learning and doing in social studies. It gives them something to store in their memory,” Elstein said of the glowing artwork. “They are going to remember this project.”

Vena, the Morton Elementary art teacher, agreed, noting that art in school is “fundamental.”

“If the students don’t have art, they lose that other avenue of learning,” he said. “It’s an outlet. They’re learning materials in a different way.”

Pearl Schaeffer, CEO of Philadelphia Arts in Education Partnership, said the “Let Art Freedom Ring” project gives students an opportunity to experience what it means to be responsible citizens while fostering their artistic abilities.

“In this environment of high-stakes testing, civics and social studies are not being taught,” Schaeffer said. “What a fabulous way to insert the curriculum into art. Thanks to this project, their lessons stick and they feel pride and take responsibility for a project, which is exceptional.”

“Individual expression is the backbone of this nation,” Williams said. “Allowing it to come out in a positive way for these young people is most important.”

A short video on the Liberty Bells exhibit at the Capitol is now available online.