It is difficult to truly impact a large public building with student art. I have planned a few large-scale murals, but time, talent and/or supplies never seemed to materialize, in order to bring them to fruition.
My solution? Install enough mini-murals featuring the portraits of creative geniuses that will eventually amass to transform our institutional hallways. They will never have the impact of a large mural, but they’ll have more impact than a mural never created. So it’s infinitely more than nothing.
This project ticks all my boxes. It …
• gets the student art work outside of the classroom (this is my “out of the box” mantra).
• allows students to leave a legacy as well as contribute to their community.
• maintains high expectation by requiring the work to be “show quality.”
• celebrates people for their creativity.
• promotes collaborative work in the studio by grouping students into “design teams.”
• avoids the stress that comes with creating a permanent installation.
• is inclusive of women and POC.
• is engaging and celebrates youth culture.
• provides a standards-based lesson.
THIS PROJECT comes after studying wheatpaste street artists, in particular, Shepard Fairey, in our community art appreciation class. A class made up of many students who are not as interested in studio arts, as much as they are in the history of community, public and street arts. The art project has to be failsafe, allowing for a range of skills. Which it does!
We can create 10 mini-murals in a class of 30 and usually hang eight or nine of them. I also enlist art club members to produce five or so every year, and summer school students create them as well. We are slowly nibbling away at the blank walls.
TO CREATE THE MINI-MURALS, I first group the students, making sure one of the three has had some color theory/design background. The groups then brainstorm (or work from a list I provide) as to whom they will do a portrait of. This year, I strongly steered them away from musicians, as those are already well represented in our halls.
It’s tricky to balance students’ ideas of who qualifies for “creative genius” status with my ideas, and also to make sure the students are engaged. I did say “no” to a student requesting to do a portrait of a “Transformer”… and also had deep reservations that John Cena should be sharing the walls with Ai Weiwei, Quentin Tarantino and Prince. But you can only nudge them so far.
Here come the technical steps. Google an image of your genius, copy it and then open up Photoshop. Open a new file and then paste in your image. Under image, choose mode > gray scale, which changes the image to, you guessed it: gray scale!
Remember, you want the students to pick colors based on their significance to their genius and not pick local color. The next step is to choose the filters tab > filter gallery > artistic and then, finally > cutout. You are basically done now. Mess around a bit with how many levels (values) you want—five seems to work best, but I have done four and six, if they work.
Students then tape a canvas square on the wall and project the Photo-shopped image onto it, labeling the values 1 through 5, as they trace. It’s now a slightly sophisticated paint-by-number! We make ours two feet square, but you could go much larger.
Students then make value scales for four of the five values, choosing colors that represent the creative genius. It’s easy enough when you are doing a visual artist, but writers and musicians require more effort in coming up with symbolic colors.
I have students use their cell phones to take a picture of the value scale and then convert it to black and white to see if their colors are really dark or light enough to work for the values. You want nice even steps in the change from one value to another.
THE OTHER VALUE. Students must have at least one non-painted value/section. This becomes their “collage value.” In the past, students have filled these with lyrics, text, copies of sketchbooks, glitter, buttons (Coco Chanel), corn husks (Stephen King), moss (Frida Kahlo), and so on.
In the student groups of three, usually two are painting and one is working on cutting out the collage parts, which they do after using tracing paper to make a pattern/template of the shapes for the collaged value. I try and get the students to not use the background for collage, but instead to use one of the values as their collage element. Sometimes it requires coaxing. For example, with Bob Marley, they didn’t want to put sand on their teeth … but then really, who does?
If time and creativity allow, we add another element to the border. Early finishers are expected to help other groups or wire the canvases for hanging. Nobody is idle in this project!
WE HAVE PLEASANTLY EXPERIENCED lots of positive feedback. I am continually asked by our administrators and others to purchase them, but I have held firm, as the mini-murals are to adorn OUR walls, not theirs.
I created a few to be auctioned off for a good cause; but the others can be seen in the third floor D hallway between the drinking fountain and the math rooms … outside the IMC/library … on the first floor by the counselors’ offices … You get the picture!
High school students will …
• work cooperatively in groups, delegating design and craft responsibilities.
• create art for a specific site.
• practice color theory.
• make original choices to depict a symbolic likeness of a “creative genius.”
NATIONAL ART STANDARDS
• CREATING: Collaboratively developing a proposal for an installation, artwork, or space design that transforms the perception and experience of a particular place.
• PRESENTING: Evaluating, selecting, and applying methods or processes appropriate to display artwork in a specific place.
• RESPONDING: Analyzing how one’s understanding of the world is affected by experiencing visual imagery.
• Acrylic paint, paintbrushes, canvas squares
• Tracing paper, pencils
• Internet, Photoshop®, computer, projector
• Scissors, a variety of printed papers and other collage materials (be prepared for sunflower seeds, coffee grounds, used books, maps, plastic flowers, corn husks— and anything else their creativity may conjure up!)
Elizabeth Carpenter is an art teacher and Department Chair at Beloit Memorial High School in Beloit Wisconsin.
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