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Beyond the fridge: York Co. schools display student art on Web

The 17 first-graders in Janet Dyer's art class mash and prod gray lumps of clay, shaping them into pinch pots - one of the oldest forms of pottery.

"We're going to decorate them the way the Indians used to decorate them," Dyer says. "Do your best because we will put these on Artsonia."

Several students speak up: "Cool."

They're eager to show the world their work.

Art once bound for refrigerator doors and boxes beneath beds is now on display for a global audience, as more teachers turn to the Web to showcase students' work.

Artsonia.com in particular, educators say, has dramatically enhanced students' art class experience.

The site calls itself "the world's largest kids art museum!" Since its 2000 launch, some four million schools from around the world have posted nearly 13 million photos of artwork.

Anyone can browse. No last names or photos of students are used. Classmates, family and friends can post parent-approved comments under each piece.

Students, in turn, are focusing more and trying harder, teachers said.

"It's a huge motivational tool," Castle Heights Middle School art teacher James Tarlton said. "You can tell that they get really excited about it."

More than three dozen schools across York County, including public, private and home schools, have posted student work on Artsonia.

Dyer and Laurel Hilton, art teacher at Old Pointe Elementary in Rock Hill, are among the most prolific posters in South Carolina.

Artsonia has included their schools in the state's top 10 for five straight years. Hilton's been on the list for seven years.

Griggs Road, ranked number two in the state and 40 in the country, has posted just under 22,000 pieces. Old Pointe, ranked 10 in the state and 251 in the country, has posted nearly 11,000.

Those aren't small feats.

Hilton spends five minutes photographing a piece, cropping the photo, uploading and adding info. Multiply that by the 600 students she teaches.

"It's really time consuming," she said. "But it's worth it because it benefits the kids."

At Griggs Road, parents take turns photographing art.

"I really could not do it without all my parent volunteers," Dyer said.

Online galleries are a hit with students and families.

"It's cool because other people get to see our art," said 7-year-old Addison Halford, a Griggs Road first-grader.

"My mama, she always sends it to my aunt, and my aunt calls me and tells me that she loves it," said Laney Brooke, a 6-year-old Griggs Road first-grader.

"It's added a new dimension," Hilton said. "It just kind of makes the world smaller for them."

One student's father who was at war in Afghanistan logged in whenever he could to praise his daughter's work.

Another student has a grandmother in Mexico who posts comments on his work in Spanish, which Hilton has him translate for the class.

"It broadens their scope of what they're capable of," Riverview Elementary art teacher Kelly Williamson said. "It's not just going to be made and put in a folder somewhere."

Terri Evans signed up to be part of her daughter Rosie's fan club. Every time Hilton posts one of the fourth-grader's pieces, Evans gets an email.

"I immediately go," she said. "I send a link to my friends and in-laws. I just love to sit there and look at them."

Artsonia visitors can buy merchandise like mugs, mouse pads and temporary tattoos of students' art. Fifteen percent of every sale goes to that school's art program.

Area schools net $100 to $300 a year, which teachers said they spend on clay, paint brushes, sketch pads and other supplies.

"Our budgets have taken severe cuts the last few years," Mount Gallant Elementary art teacher Heather Gregory said. "This is a real easy way to do our jobs and take in money on the side."

Selling merchandise is the core of Artsonia's business model, CEO Jim Myers said. The site also holds corporate-sponsored contests. The service is otherwise free to schools and viewers.

In its first year, teachers posted 10,000 pieces. For several years, participation doubled. Recently, Myers said, it's been growing 20 to 30 percent annually.

The idea for Artsonia came from one of its three co-founders, who was impressed with children's art at an orphanage he visited in India.

He thought "other kids should see that," Myers said.

They quit their jobs as computer consultants and built the site, which now has 10 employees, who Myers said make all of the merchandise.

The plan is to keep growing.

"The big idea is that you'd be able to show your kids or grandkids what you did in second grade," he said.

While Rock Hill High art teacher Lorne Brandt has dabbled in Artsonia, he prefers the blog network he has students create.

Each student has a blog where they post work, thoughts and inspiration. It's an evolving collection of portfolios, where the teens communicate and comment on each other's work. They're all connected to a central blog that Brandt created with Google's free Blogger service.

"It's a community that lives by itself," Brandt said. "It's a way of democratizing participation."

Brandt, who believes technology has made teaching art more efficient and meaningful for students, often downloads interviews with contemporary artists to show in class.

"Any image I want I can find online," he said. "No longer are they just held to the dead white Europeans."

Brandt's blog network is "a really good interactive way to help me develop myself as an artist," senior Santiago Rodriguez said. And "with technology rising so fast, you can pull out your phone and bam, there it is - a gallery."

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