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There are hypothetical, academic experiences, and there are hands-on, real-world experiences.

While it is rare when they overlap, four tenacious and talented South Lakes High School students this past year-and-a-half had the privilege and excitement of both in the creation of a special site-specific, temporary public art project.

The outcome of this project, which was first proposed to the Reston Association’s Design Review Board (RA DRB) in March 2012, may now be viewed at the spillway on Reston’s Lake Thoreau.

Only in place for a few more weeks, the colorful pyramid-shaped sculpture—conceived, built and moved forward by the students through a demanding bureaucratic process—is the product of a partnership between South Lakes, the Initiative for Public Art-Reston (IPAR), RA and benefactor James Pan.

Although 50 or so South Lakes students first heard about the “Pyramid of Light” public art project in September 2012, only four survived. They included seniors Sammy Nazam, 18, and Gabriella Rando, 17; junior Tehmeena Salahin, 16; and sophomore Margaret Lashley, 15.

The team’s mentor was South Lakes art teacher and working artist, Marco Rando, who guided the students through all the project’s complex phases.

The almost 18-foot square kinetic sculpture, which sits atop Lake Thoreau’s drably utilitarian concrete spillway, is constructed of wood, aircraft-grade wire and more than 100 acrylic Plexiglas panels painted with bright tie-dye colors that move in the wind.

Unveiled on May 8, it was fabricated by the students in the school parking lot to test its engineering, including trying out the movement of the colored panels with a leaf blower.

It was then deconstructed and given to members of RA’s construction staff, who reconstructed it on the concrete spillway of Lake Thoreau.

“It was not only an art lesson, but a civics lesson, too,” said Larry Butler, RA’s senior director for parks, recreation and community resources, deeming the pyramid “pretty cool.”

It is not only “cool” but legal, too. “Having dealt with spillways, dams and lakes before, this is the first time someone is legally using it as palette, as a basis for an artwork,” Butler said.

But the “neatest thing,” he suggested, was watching the students go through the approval process, including convincing RA’s extremely exacting and initially skeptical DRB of the project’s merits--not an easy task.

With RA for 32 years, Butler, 54, said, “You can imagine art, but need to be aware of the practical side. … It’s not an uncomplicated world.”

Among the practical realities of the project, Butler said, key was its engineering. “Whatever was done it couldn’t impede the flow of the spillway.”

He recalled the students having to face a room full of people when they made their three presentations to DRB members, who did not treat them any differently from other applicants.

Although their first presentation in October 2013 was somewhat rocky, their final two—in November 2013 and March 2014--received standing ovations from everyone present.

In addition to the DRB, the students needed the approval of IPAR’s Public Art Committee, which put them through the same process that professionals go through when responding to a “call-for artists.”

All four students elatedly described the project as “an amazing opportunity.”

Sitting with fellow team members in a South Lakes art room Sammy enthused, “How many high school students get a chance to create public art. … Students don’t get to work on real-life projects.

“There’s so much involved, so many challenges and obstacles to overcome – just coming up with ideas, considering budgets and plausibility--that you never get in an academic setting.”

Gabriella, Rando’s daughter, said she followed through not only because of the family connection but because she “wanted to see if it was actually possible.”

Cataloguing what she took away from the experience, Margaret listed “how to pitch ideas,” how to “work within strict guidelines,” and how to “adapt to a constantly changing situation.”

Tehmeena conceded that the project took a lot of time and “a lot of patience,” and although presenting to the DRB “was really nerve-wracking,” the experience truly boosted all their confidence levels.

Despite the many challenges, Tehmeena allowed, “I’m so glad I stayed.”

She marveled, “When we got those standing ovations, it was an amazing feeling … and it’s really happening; we’re making public art.”

Sammy recalled the experience with great pride, too. “They didn’t give us any slack because of age,” he said of the DRB. “At that first meeting, they really took us apart … really forced us to stand up for the project and our capacity to create it.” The concepts for the sculpture’s visual design went through many permutations, some extravagantly imaginative but not necessarily practical. Among the multiple proposals was a large tree seemingly growing from the base of the spillway and a giant squid-like creature that would have enveloped its exterior.

The final pyramid design was by far the best, the student team unanimously agreed. All especially liked its “simplicity,” a word they all used.

Margaret admired “how it interacts with the wind … won’t be static.” Gabriella appreciated its structural “integrity” and hoped the colorful panels on their “invisible” wires “would “arouse a lot of curiosity …and “seem to be floating in space.” Both Tehmeena and Sammy approved of how the pyramid fit harmoniously into its surroundings.

“Simple yet complex,” Rando said, agreeing with his student team’s assessments.

“RA chose the simplest idea,” he noted, “but told the students ‘use your wildest imagination, just spit out ideas.”

Reflecting further on the project, Rando said, “When I think about how it evolved, the [students] dedication and time, it brings me to tears. … It went far beyond expectations.”

The Lake Thoreau project, Rando hopes, will become not only an annual undertaking but also a regular part of the South Lakes curriculum as a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) project.

“I’ll do everything in my breath to make it so,” promised Rando, who has already written up a detailed lesson plan.

Rando added, “It was a great learning experience,” and while most student achievement is measured by standardized tests, “there was nothing standardized about this project.”

Benefactor James Pan is in total agreement that this student-led project and diverse partnership should be an annual effort that he will continue to support. Like Rando, he hopes that next year more of the community will get involved, especially local business people like himself.

Pan, who “picks stocks for a living” and works totally alone, noted: “I didn’t have the satisfaction of building a business [with employees], like other members of my family. To see that structure, I feel an amazing amount of pride … even though I had the smallest part.”

A resident of Reston’s Lake Thoreau neighborhood, where he lives with his wife Holly and two sons, ages 7 and 4, Pan, 48, who grew up in McLean, said the idea for a public art project at the spillway came to him during his favorite walk along the shoreline.

Inspired by Christo and Jeanne Claude’s extremely popular “Gates” temporary, site-specific public art project in New York City’s Central Park, Pan looked at the concrete spillway and thought “what wasted space.”

The partnership and project actually commenced for him in 2011, he recalled, after he was referred by Claudia Thompson Deahl, environmental resource manager for RA’s Walker Nature Education Center, to Anne Delaney, IPAR’s executive director, who encouraged and otherwise facilitated the project’s various strands.

Even more than funding, Pan rated “persistence” as his major contribution to the success of the spillway project.

“The DRB, they’re a tough crowd. Marco, the students and Larry Butler deserve the chief credit. … The students learned important lessons. They can look back at this with a large amount of pride,” he said.

In addition to the visual pleasure the project simulates, another key benefit, for Pan, is the community engagement and conversation that he hopes it is stimulating.

He said, “Whether you hate it or like it, I just want you to talk about it. I like it, but if others don’t, I can live with that.”

He added, “I like the fact that the community wins, RA wins and IPAR gets another project.”