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Collaborating on a mural.

A unique learning experience was recently provided for the students at Barnett Shoals Elementary School. A collaborative effort to create a mural for the school cafeteria enabled 756 students to learn about creative and constructive processes used by an artist in developing a work of art. This project provided a model for collaborative projects which can benefit the school program while teaching students about their own culture.

Art teacher Emily Harris and artist Jerry Chappelle, joined forces to direct the project. With strong support from the school's principal, $4,800 donated by parents, businesspeople and other interested individuals, as well as materials and labor for construction donated by a local masonry company, the idea became a reality. Chappelle, a nationally renowned ceramist, contributed his time and expertise to direct the project. He met with the fifth grade art enrichment class and demonstrated methods for constructing the tiles which made up the major body of the artwork. Impressed by their interest and involvement in the project, Chappelle stressed the importance of allowing the students to have complete freedom to develop and create their own themes. He believes that if one "opens the door" by giving the child the opportunity to have that freedom, then creativity will follow. Chappelle and Harris guaranteed that opportunity by providing the students with their knowledge of the techniques and processes needed for working with clay.

The completed mural on the cafeteria wall is comprised of 750 tiles of various sizes. The main portion of the mural is constructed of thirty-two panels arranged in a quilt-like pattern. This mural depicts a wide variety of subjects important to each of the students who created them. Each of the clay panels was first constructed on 2 1/2 ft. by 3 ft. plywood panels. These panels were cut up into nine to sixteen shapes or sections before they were moved to shelves to dry for about twelve days before firing. The art enrichment class created the main tiles. Smaller tiles bordering the larger ones throughout the mural were created by the rest of the students in the school. Mrs. Harris handled both the problems of storage for the clay pieces between firings and the long process of loading the entire set of tiles in a series of eighteen to twenty-four hour firings.

The structural problem involved in attaching the 24 ft. by 9 ft. mural to the surface of the cafeteria wall was solved by removing a portion of the wall's surface and replacing it with cement. After all of the tiles were glazed and fired, they were glued onto panels to re-create the original design of each section. The panels were then bolted to the cement wall to create the finished mural.

Cultural Influences

June King McFee has written that "the particular culture that a child lives in affects his perceptual development and the nature of his art." The mural at Barnett Shoals portrays the interests and the culture of the thirty-two students who designed the major panels. Images of punk-rock characters, race cars flying over water, horns with faces, boats, flowers, landscapes, pizza and hamburgers were just a few of the images chosen by the students to reflect their interests and impressions from the world around them. It is important to understand the need for students to have the opportunity to draw from their own experience and to create artworks that affect and contribute to their environment. Principal Sherry Malone states "students develop their taste for art as they are exposed to art experiences, both in an observing and participating role. Gradually, these experiences make students more critical to their likes and dislikes of art, and because taste is developed from many sources, it can reflect one's background experience. This structured art project...... can be at least one center for raising the level of understanding and appreciation of the arts and environment in which we live. The creative mind applied to any endeavor will flourish in performance and should be encouraged."

A Community Venture

The mural attracted the attention of educator, Eliott Wiggington, who visited the students during the process of making the tiles for the wall. One of his own students' collaborative projects, The Foxfire Books (Wiggington, 1986), had similar beginnings. The basis of the mural project and the Foxfire projects both involve the need for students to combine their skills and interests to give something back to their community and to reflect on and to integrate the ideas of each of the cultures surrounding them. Wiggington's own philosophy concerning the importance of providing students with opportunities for hands-on learning and problem-solving, is based on the idea that students learn by the analysis of experience. This belief is reflected in the influences which formed the direction of the mural project at Barnett Shoals--the best learning takes place as a result of each student's involvement in the problem-solving process. Group art projects provide an opportunity for students to generate ideas cooperatively and to participate in their completion.

At a time when the idea of teaching children about cultural heritage is being stressed, it is important to offer students the opportunity to learn to recognize and value the influences and elements which make them who they are. It is of equal importance for students to participate in projects that focus on the collaborative process, encouraging them to direct their creativity towards a common goal. This cooperative effort also encourages a feeling of collective ownership and provides the opportunity for the contribution of a legacy (in clay) for the school's future students.

Andra N. Johnson is a member of the Department of Art, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia.
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Author:Johnson, Andra N.
Publication:School Arts
Date:Oct 1, 1991
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