I want to say a big THANK YOU to all the parents, volunteers, teachers, administration, staff, and students at Otto Petersen Elementary who have supported the collaborative mural project we are now co-creating! I am honored to have the amazing opportunity to guide a mural project at Otto Petersen Elementary school in Scappoose, Oregon, USA. As of today, 6 March 2017, we are in the middle of the project. Here, I record this process as it unfolds!
(On 4/11/2017 I posted an update for our progress, here: Otto Petersen Elementary Mural Update)
Last December, artist Jennifer Hanson and myself, Veronica Reeves, both parents of children in the Scappoose school district, were contacted to see if we would be interested in volunteering on the Art Committee to facilitate Otto Petersen’s theme of the year: Art. One of the big ideas for this theme is a tile mural that will permanently be affixed to the front of the school near the entrance. When complete, the mural will measure about 7.5′ x 19′!
My passion for this project has been galvanized by the students who are already passionate artists. Also, I am struck by how unaccustomed and even fearful many of the students are to drawing, using watercolor paints, and to basic art knowledge such as, what is a mural? For this reason, I am doubly committed to my volunteering position, even though it takes its toll on my professional art practice and even on my home and family life. I personally have benefited from working on this project, and that’s the power of practicing art; it opens your eyes to meaning beyond monetary value.
Rather than launch into a full arts education advocacy rant here, I want to talk about my experience with the mural project. Jennifer Hanson and I were put here by divine purpose to be midwives to this project… Why do I believe this? Because we have been in sync on every decision that has come our way! -and there are more decisions ahead as this project culminates in an evening of art including the public presentation of the mural and a school wide student art show at the end of the school year! Here are some of the steps we’ve gone through so far:
What was the purpose of this mural? We believe the purpose of this mural is to represent the community at Otto Petersen Elementary school. This means the students, teachers, staff, and volunteers. With the students first in mind, we decided the mural should come from the students. We also decided we wanted the mural to be more collaborative, and even though we were potentially going to find a design based on 1 or 2 or maybe 3 students ideas, we wanted to find a way to allow some autonomy when students make the individual tile images. As we researched tile murals, we and the arts committee were drawn to the murals in which the individual tiles came together to create a large design. This meant that it was probable that some students would have to work on a tile that might be pretty simple, i.e. a tile that is all green or all purple. So, one question we asked ourselves was, how do we keep those simple tiles interesting to a student who wants to be more expressive or creative?
Call for Student Proposals. We presented the idea for the mural project to the students, and told them we were requesting submissions for mural ideas. We presented three times, once for 4th, 5th, and 6th grade. The one real guideline for the mural was that it had to have an owl (we emphasized barn owl) because of the school mascot, “Hootie the Owl”, and because of the story of a real barn owl that was rescued at the school after flying into a classroom window, who teachers and students called Hootie. The students overall seemed very excited about and interested in this idea, which was very encouraging. One student who I had not met yet spontaneously hugged me after one of our presentations. 🙂
How to draw a Barn Owl. It seemed like a good idea to make up a brief lesson on how to draw a barn owl. I felt very strongly that it would increase participation if the students felt encouraged about
drawing, and if we got them started on a piece of paper that was roughly proportional to the wall we were going to be working on. I created these printable mini-zine instructions and went with Jennifer to each of the 17 classrooms, leading the students through the instructions and answering any questions students had about the design. FAQ’s included: Do we have to draw one owl? Do we have to draw a realistic owl? Do we have to have a tree? (we originally said that the design should include a tree, but we recanted and said to just have some sort of a background). This drawing lesson included slides of art and photos of owls that we wanted the kids to see as examples for opening up their imagination. One student asked if their owl could be wearing a hat. “Of course you can draw an owl wearing a hat, this is YOUR mural!”, I said.
Choosing the final design. From a school of 480 students we received 112 submissions! That is roughly 25% of students who independently participated in this process. They were not required to submit a design, some teachers were able to give their students time to work in class on their design! Other teachers did not see this as a priority, which breaks my heart since this mural is a historical monument to and for our community. It was Tuesday night when we met to pore over the submitted drawings from students. The decision for a final design could have been a real mother bear of a process if Jennifer and I hadn’t been so focused, or good at communicating, or disagreed at all. Instead it was a little cub bear of a process, because it was still A LOT of work, with quick thinking and flexibility required of us, and that was just in coming up with a design! Our strategy was to lay all the submissions out on tables in the library so we could look at them all at once. Many ideas were repeated: barns, moons, trees with hollows where nests were found, owls with hats, owls with pencils or books or report cards, references to local landscape and other local animals. I said, “Let’s put all the ones we like together in one section.” We compiled a total of 13 (a magical number) that contained elements we found meaningful and charming. I scanned those 13 pieces, opened them in a graphics editing program on my lap top, selected and resized the elements that we wanted to retain from each student drawing, then printed them out. For the next two days we worked during school hours, plus some, to alchemically develop what this mural was to be. We went over the colors by hand, crisping up black lines, brightening up greens, deepening browns, cutting them out, and collaged it all together onto a background of purple sky with a glowing moon, and rolling green hills, which I painted. A rainbow, mosaic owl here, a mouse there. A nest of baby owls wearing pestle mortar hats here, a regal owl in front of the moon there. A horse in a flowered meadow here, three mountains including an erupting Mt. St. Helens there. The Scappoose “World Peace Candle” here and a drawing of Otto Petersen Elementary there! This represented our final design and was to scale at 9.5″ x 24″. We proudly transported this picture to the school to show Principal Whitney Hessong for her blessing and approval, which we received!
Scanning and Printing a scale version. Next, Jennifer took our baby (the final mural design) to Willamette Blue Printing and printed two larger versions, each 30″ x 84″. One we keep as a reference, the other we sliced up into 2″ squares. These would be the squares that students would copy onto larger 6″ squares. We used a delightful tool called a rotary blade to expedite this job!
Multi-media tiles and Print Transfer process. While Jennifer and I researched murals, we were coming up against the reality of time. The school’s “Year of Art” was already half way in with little art action having taken place. We were asked to have a mural completed by the end of the school year. That meant barely six months to research, implement, complete, and install the mural. As luck would have it, Jennifer was directed to Finishline Graphics as an option for actually printing the tile designs onto the tiles. This meant the students could work on paper with any media they like, opening up the options for variety within the mural design itself. We are one week in to this process and have just started the scanning. As the students come into our designated classroom space for making their tiles, we have tried different strategies to maximize the mere 45 minutes to duplicate the small tiles onto larger, 6″ squares, such as pre-selecting tiles for a group. Again, here there isn’t just one answer; this is not a one-size fits all process. Sometimes we pick out a section for the group that are headed to us next, but then a couple students are dissatisfied with the tile they are assigned, it seems to be equally either because it is too simple or because it isn’t simple enough! We for an outcome where everyone is happy, even if that might not be possible. One of my favorite moments was when the CSS (special needs) class came in and most of the group wanted pieces that were more complex. I had wrongly assumed that they would want simple tiles! They worked very hard on the tiles they had chosen and they did an astounding job. I felt humbled by this surprise lesson and reminded myself not to limit students because of my expectations.
Scanning and Printing on the Tiles. So far we are happy with the way the color is retained on the screen. We hope to have the first test tiles completed in the next couple of days! (On 4/11/2017 I posted an update for our progress, here: Otto Petersen Elementary Mural Update)
Here is a sampling of some of the student submissions for the mural design!