Uplifting Work with Artist-in-Residence

“If that were a story, what kinds of themes would you draw from it?”
English teacher Jake Kohn was pressing his students to ponder what they had just witnessed in the Athletic Center’s weight room. Artist-in-residence Kledia Spiro, this year’s Mudge Fellow, had taught students the proper form for weightlifting and hoisted a very heavy load—the students’ backpacks.

The symbolism was not lost on the class.
Two students had acted as “Olympic loaders,” placing the weights on Ms. Spiro’s barbell. The weights—the backpacks—were heavy with books and, for some, with less tangible academic burdens. When the backpacks became too much to lift, Ms. Spiro called on students to help, which surprised observers expecting the weightlifter, who was on a national Olympic weightlifting team, to prevail unassisted.
Ms. Spiro loves art and weightlifting and, as a performance and visual artist, combines the two. Her multimedia exhibit, “LightWeight,” in Groton’s Brodigan Gallery through February 16, features video installation and painting. Her work touches on themes including immigration, female empowerment, family, fitness—and the “weights” we all carry in one form or another.
Since December 4, Ms. Spiro has been working with Groton’s English, science, and art classes, and will continue through December 13. The Mudge Fellowship was established by the Mudge Foundation in 1992 to enhance students’ exposure to the arts. Art teacher Beth Van Gelder, who organizes the fellowship and curates the Brodigan Gallery, recognized the interdisciplinary potential of this visiting artist and encouraged teachers in all departments to consider working with her.
In Ms. Van Gelder’s Second Form Visual Studies class, Ms. Spiro began by asking students to name something that brings them joy. Puzzles, writing, golf on the beach, organ music, hiking … the students went on and on … building computers, writing, hockey. “What you love to do can lift you up,” the artist explained, touching on the metaphor that permeates her work. In future classes, those students will create mixed media works that symbolize what lifts them up—the things they love—or the burdens that can weigh them down. Those pieces and other student work will be on display at the Brodigan Gallery as part of Ms. Spiro’s installation.
The Groton community has had the opportunity to learn about Ms. Spiro’s art as well as her life. During an artist talk in the Schoolhouse’s Sackett Forum on Wednesday, December 6, she introduced the school to her childhood in wartime Albania, where she would paint in the hallway because it was an area safe from bullets flying outside. Years later, the sharp sound made by a barbell during Olympic lifting would remind her of the gunshots in Albania. “For the first time, I had control of that sound,” she said. “I wasn’t the victim of it anymore. I was the one producing it.” Much of Ms. Spiro’s art struggles to reconcile the weight of all that her parents sacrificed on her behalf.
The importance of lifting burdens together came up repeatedly in the presentations. At various times, the artist stopped to ask for help with her loaded barbell, sparking discussion about how difficult, or even impossible, it is for one person to lift the weight of other people.

In that unusual classroom, surrounded by equipment designed for physical challenge, students were thinking about how to properly lift a barbell while also contemplating weighty lessons about vulnerability, teamwork, empowerment, and life.

See photos of Mudge Fellow Kledia Spiro at Groton.