“The Little Artist:” one sculpture, commemorating two Haddonfield women

As Ellen Berry, the model for “The Little Artist” sculpture, graduates from HMHS, she hopes her image will inspire future Haddonfield students to get involved in art in the same way that Tatem art teacher Hillary Johnston inspired students.

Ellen Berry was around 5 years old when she posed for the mold that would become “The Little Artist” sculpture outside of J. Fithian Tatem Elementary School. She said when she learned her likeness was being used in a memorial commemorating one of Tatem’s art teachers, she was too young to understand the significance.

Now at age 17 and on the verge of graduating Haddonfield Memorial High School, Berry said she feels privileged to have a piece of both her and art teacher Hillary Johnston outside of a Haddonfield school. She said she hopes the sculpture stands as a testament to the impact of art.

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“The Little Artist” was installed outside Tatem in June 2013, two years after Johnston succumbed to cancer. The piece was created by Haddonfield sculptor John Giannotti, a member of the Haddonfield Outdoor Sculpture Trust Selection Advisory Committee, who had heard Johnston’s fellow Tatem teacher, Daneen Scott, was interested in purchasing a sculpture to commemorate her close friend Johnston.

Giannotti volunteered to create an original piece donating his time, so Scott and her fellow fundraisers would have something more personal and only have to fundraise enough money for the casting of the sculpture in bronze.

Giannotti had previously asked his wife’s life-long friend Alice Moore if her daughter would be willing to pose for another sculpture he was creating for the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of the Infant Jesus in Cherry Hill. He said years later, when it came time to sit down and work on the Johnston sculpture, he thought about the cast he had made of Ellen, and he suspected he could rework it to create something special to memorialize Johnston.

Scott said in her conversations with Giannotti, they discussed Johnston’s impact on children at length.

“She was a wonderful art teacher; she really inspired children to create,” Scott said. “Not everyone is an artist, but she made everyone feel like an artist.”

Scott said Johnston had an uncanny ability to see the potential in students, which made her presence inspiring to be around. When she passed at the age of 44, both students and teachers felt a void from her absence, she said.

The piece features a small child, based on Berry’s image, painting at an easel. The work on the canvas is a drawing Johnston did as child that her family allowed Giannotti to create as part of the piece.

Tatem Principal Karen Schultz said she was not at Tatem when Johnston was, but her legacy lives on today. She said she knows the sculpture continues to mean a lot to the Haddonfield community.

She said the piece brings students immense joy. She said she sees her students going up to it on a daily basis, standing right beside it because the sculpture is their size. Schultz said Giannotti found a way to take a devastating loss and turn Johnston’s legacy into something joyful for the community.

“John Giannotti is so skilled in knowing how to create artwork that connects,” Schultz said.

Berry attended Central Elementary School, but she said she is immensely grateful to have her image as part of the memorial outside of Tatem. She said she has an immense sense of pride about having gone through the Haddonfield school system.

“I think it’s so important for kids that art remain in the Haddonfield school district because it’s had such an impact in my life and especially some of my peers because it’s such an outlet for emotion,” Berry said. “It’s very easy to express emotion through art.”

While Berry plans to pursue an interdisciplinary course of study in the material sciences at Salisbury University, Haddonfield has instilled a special place for art in her heart. She said the sculptures throughout Haddonfield have taught her the impact art can have to create conversations and express emotion.

Berry said she hopes future Tatem students are inspired when they learn it was one of their own who is depicted. She said that makes art and sculpture sound like something more feasible for students, which helps to keep Johnston’s inspirational legacy alive.

“Hopefully students will say that’s not just someone random; that’s someone who went to school in Haddonfield,” Berry said. “It could be one of us.”

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