- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 5, 2016

NORTHPORT, Ala. (AP) - Daniel Dancer towered 88 feet above the ground on Monday as he directed hundreds of Matthews Elementary School students where to stand below him.

“Everyone, down on the ground and hold your knees,” the artist and curator of the 16-year “Art For the Sky” project said into a megaphone.

As Dancer moved students to different positions, different groups wearing black, gray and white slowly began to resemble the Rice Mine Road school’s mascot: a tornado.

“You guys are a wonderful tornado,” Dancer said.

The setup included nearly 550 students and teachers on the ground as Dancer photographed and recorded the display. For Dancer, designing art to be seen from the sky creates a perspective outside of oneself.

“The way of perceiving the world is obsolete,” Dancer said. “We have to look at the world through the eyes of the Earth.”

The project initially began after Tripp Marshall, principal at Matthews Elementary, began doing some research on the school, its name and why tornadoes were part of the school’s spirit. After talking with different people in the community and looking at the school’s history, he discovered that tornadoes and the death of a local principal nearly 85 years ago had more to do with the school than he realized.

On March 21, 1932, a tornado hit Northport, Tuscaloosa and the surrounding communities. Across the street from where Matthews Elementary currently stands was another school called the Tuscaloosa County Training School. According to archives, Virgil “V.E.” Matthews, principal of the school, began to try and get students out of the area.

“They say he was actually the only one who had a car and he would take trips to drive students away,” said Kim Norrell, a second-grade teacher at Matthews who has researched the school’s history.

Norrell said that when he got back to the school to get other students, the weather became severe, forcing him and other to take shelter in a nearby ditch. Ruby Battle, a student at the time, said she was at home when the tornado hit, but Matthews was not so fortunate.

“When he looked up to see if the weather was better, he was hit on the head and was killed,” the 96-year-old Tuscaloosa county native said.

The Tuscaloosa County Training School was destroyed by the tornado, but was rebuilt and later became Sprayberry Education Center. Another elementary school was built in 1958 and named in honor of Matthews. Matthews Elementary was built in its current location in 1968.

“I really felt that this was a really good story to tell,” Marshall said. “I thought it would be very interesting.”

Other than Matthews’ part in the school’s history, Marshall also wanted the display to show how the area has dealt with tornadoes in the past and how despite the destruction they bring, the community still pulls together.

“It’s just a story of resilience and I think that our community needs this because we really need to bond together around our school,” he said. “The irony is that a former principal was killed by it.”

As the display was completed, Dancer told the group to take a moment of silence.

“For me, it became a way of honoring the majesty of the storm and respecting the power of nature,” he said.

Norrell said she and her 22-student class had fun taking part in the art project.

“We were all very excited,” she said. “It was quite an experience.”

Dancer said that if the students took only one idea from the project, he hopes it would be that of the necessity of community.

“They experienced what it was like to collaborate and make something beautiful,” he said. “That’s what we need to do to make sure our future is great.”


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