Making a Community Art Mural with Kids
Well, in addition to calling myself a mosaicist, I can now add that I’m a “muralist.” Recently I and my painter colleague Hilary Tait Norod ran a two-week class with 10 and 11 year olds in which the kids (at least mostly the kids) designed and created a really wonderful wall mural (15 feet wide by 6 feet high) that includes both paint and mosaics, at Medford High School.
Both Hilary and I have done plenty of work with kids, so we didn’t get too fussed about that part. After all, we reasoned, parents who sign their children up for a “community art” class must think their kids have some interest in making art.
However, never having done a project on such a scale and with a specific timeframe before, we worried a bit that (a) no kids would sign up, (b) way too many kids would sign up, (c) we would finish in a week and have a bunch of bored kids on our hands for another week, or (d) we’d be nowhere near done on the last day.
Day 1: Sheer luck was on our side for sure! The day before the class began only three kids had registered. Would that be enough, we wondered? The first morning we started with one almost 10 year old girl and three boys who were all siblings: 10-year-old twins and their older brother. A bit later a mother arrived with her 11-year-old daughter, although she wasn’t on the registration list. And then a mom walked in with two girls age 12 and a slightly younger boy, all of whom had signed up for a computer class that had been cancelled! Now we had eight students; was that too many?
Day 2: The three computer kids didn’t return. So we proceeded from then on with five kids--Marcello, Juliana, Salma, Sebi, and Desi--which turned out to be a pretty good number for a wall mural the size we did.
Our first task—teaching the kids about murals and leading them through the design process—turned out to be the hardest. The room we were given had no windows and the kids had some trouble focusing when summer was calling from outside. Some particularly hot days that was a good thing, but three hours can be a LONG time when you’re young, you love computer games and not so much sitting still and listening. Luckily for us, the school, which has about 1500 students, is so large that seniors are assigned to take new freshman around to their classes the first week of school until they learn the routes! So we walked around a lot. In addition to taking a long walk outside every day, we visited the murals made by seniors (one section shown here) and discussed “concept”: What did the artists want to say? What is really going on here? What makes you think that? We wanted the children to come up with their own concept for the mural, so we needed them to really get the idea that a concept is more than a description of what will be where on the wall.
Day 4: Concept! Juliana, who’s 11, came up with the concept we all agreed on, once we all understood exactly what she meant. We had spent part of the class playing with mosaic materials and making practice tiles, after which we walked over to the wall where our mural would be and talked about concept again. Juliana explained that the concept could include the elements of nature (earth, air, water, and metal, plus light and dark) coming together to create our world, but expressed in “shards.” That is, different fragments of things together create the relationships and connections that make our world. Nice!
Day 5: Meeting with Dr. John Perella, Headmaster of Medford High School, to describe the concept, show him our very rough sketches, and ask for his approval. He was quite enthusiastic (but more on that later). Then we started sketching out the specifics of our mural on the actual wall—exciting! Finally the kids decided on a (very nice) palette of colors for the “shards,” by experimenting with mosaic tiles until they got a combination of colors that worked well together.
Days 6-9: Making the mural: After painting black outlines around all the shards, we taught the students about color mixing and created paint colors that matched the mosaics they had chosen. We started with primary red, yellow, blue, black, and white, plus a premixed golden yellow and brown. We were all excited by the great colors we created!
Day 10: Last day and party! We grouted the mosaic pieces, went over all the black outlines, removed masking tape and tarps, and cleaned up. By 11:15 we were ready to greet our party guests: the students’ families, Headmaster, other staff and teachers from the high school who had watched our progress with interest, and even Medford’s Mayor, Michael McGlynn (who loved the mural)!
Dr. Perella told the kids how very impressed he was with the result, admitting that he “didn’t think the result would be THIS good.” (High praise!) He added that all the walls of the high school are a canvas for future projects!
So, in the end, all our worries evaporated. We were done on time (although barely!), everyone loved the finished mural, and the kids had fun and learned a lot about art and how to work together on a public project. And Medford High School now has a permanent piece of art that everyone passing by in the busy hallways can enjoy for many years!
Susan Altman: Mosaicist, Community Artist, Writer/Editor