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Young Artists Create Tiny Tennessee Christmases at MTSU to Decorate State Tree

Young local artists have applied their talents and enthusiasm to an MTSU-based project to help remind Tennesseans that they need a little Christmas — now.

Students from Lori Kissinger's EXL Organizational Communications in Communities class served as artists' assistants to nearly two dozen young men and women who attend the Transition Academy of Rutherford County Schools and the Tennessee School for the Blind.

The artists used paint, glue, holiday decorations and plenty of laughter during a recent workshop to create unique ornaments for Tennessee’s 2014 national Christmas tree in Washington, D.C.

You can watch a video about the holiday fun at http://youtu.be/3TAaKpdpLKg.

The young artists work regularly with VSA Tennessee, the state organization on arts and disability that was established in 2001 on the MTSU campus. Kissinger, an organizational communications instructor at MTSU, also serves as VSA Tennessee's executive director. 

VSA, the international organization on arts and disabilities, was founded in 1974 by Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith and was formerly known as Very Special Arts. VSA merged with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 2011 to expand its services.

Kissinger's students regularly help with logistics for VSA events as part of her experiential learning classes, coordinating events like the annual Tennessee VSA Young Soloist Competition and the "Golden Ratio Project," an international arts education exchange performance, along with the now-annual holiday ornaments workshop.

While the MTSU students offered help and praise, each artist painted one side of a clear plastic grapefruit-sized globe, then carefully placed decorations inside to create tiny Tennessee Christmases. 

Each of the ornaments is filled with a snow-covered toy tree surrounded by glittering beads and Tennessee-focused items ranging from black bears and horses to guitars and irises. Each holiday diorama will be protected by and viewed through its plastic globe’s unpainted side as it hangs on the Tennessee tree in Washington.

"The artist who created the design came in and talked to our MTSU students to make sure they were on board with that design,” Kissinger explained. “Every state has an artist who designs the ornament each year, and then the children create it. She went through the process of creating it with the MTSU students so when today came, we'd be ready to go."

The MTSU students were under extra pressure this semester to coordinate the event logistics, help with publicity and serve the guest artists in such a quick turnaround time.

"This class already had its class project set for the semester," Kissinger said, noting that she explained to her students that this VSA project would have to be accomplished during their regular afternoon class time to accommodate the deadlines. The students won't receive additional class credit for this event.

"Yet they're willing to go ahead and do it, to go above and beyond. They're not getting a grade or anything, other than the enjoyment of helping," Kissinger said. “It’s wonderful.”

"I appreciate them working with us," one young Transition Academy artist said of his MTSU assistant. "We have a lot of fun and get to create art, plus we're getting to help decorate the tree that goes to Washington!"

The VSA Tennessee artists’ ornaments will once again become part of a 91-year-old tradition of celebrating Christmas with a national tree in the nation’s capital.


Every year, one-of-a-kind ornaments are made by everyday Americans to hang on the 56 trees — one for every U.S. state, territory and the District of Columbia — that surround the national Christmas tree. President Calvin Coolidge launched the tradition in 1923 when he walked from the White House to the Ellipse to light a 48-foot fir tree decorated with 2,500 electric bulbs in red, white and green.

Ninety-one years later, the tree-lighting ceremony is a family must-see in person in Washington, D.C., or on TV in special National Park Service and National Park Foundation programming.

VSA Tennessee helped bring a nationwide tour of unique artists to MTSU earlier this fall with the “In/finite Earth” exhibit in the Todd Art Gallery. Last spring, the VSA Tennessee Young Soloist competition was preceded at MTSU by a special master class with internationally recognized musician and inspirational speaker George Dennehy.