Ms Esrum! There’s a bull butt on the roof!” In this unexpected and rather undignified manner, my student effectively got his class interested in a project that would probably be the most absurd and profound in the history of Hillcrest High School’s art department.
Where did I find that bull and the idea for the project? It all began in Naperville, Illinois, where I’d been visiting relatives. We toured the downtown area where it looked as if there had been a giraffe invasion. Eight-foot fiberglass giraffes situated in front of buildings looked like a spin-off of “Cows on Parade.”
Many of you are probably familiar with this community event where businesses sponsor life-size fiberglass cows. Different styles and techniques of art are used to paint and embellish the cows, which are later auctioned for charity. While on display throughout the city, the cows create an excellent method of bringing art out of museums and onto sidewalks, thus increasing art appreciation and awareness. Displays such as these promote increased traffic in a community and thus increase commerce.
As I flew back home from Illinois, I imagined my students painting a fiberglass giraffe and wondered where on earth I could find—much less afford—a fiberglass anything.
TWO WEEKS LATER, I stopped at Bill Willis’ vegetable stand along the highway. While chatting about his tomatoes, he led me to the backyard where he grew them staked in old tractor tires filled with soil. He directed my attention to a life-size sculpture of a cow on the side of his yard. “That, little lady, is a Bi-Lo bull,” he said. “It used to stand on the top of a Bi-Lo grocery store. I bought three of them 10 years ago. Would you like to borrow one?”
Flummoxed, I almost declined his offer. Fortunately, I came out of my Saturday-morning haze and realized I had just found my fiberglass anything! Though I preferred to borrow a giraffe, I accepted the offer to borrow the bull and contacted our maintenance engineer, Martinez Durrant, who agreed to transport it to school in his pick-up truck.
When the bull arrived at school, we discovered it was too wide to fit through most doors. Until a way to get the bull into the art room was established, Martinez decided to bring it over the roof of the school and lower it into our enclosed courtyard, where it would be safe. When he told me that the “bull raising” was about to start, I sent one of my students out into the courtyard and told him to “wait for something cool to happen.”
Then we heard it: “Ms Esrum! There’s a bull butt on the roof!” I signaled for the rest of the class to join us in the courtyard, and that bull was steered over the edge of the roof by three custodians who lowered it by a chain wrapped around its neck. Once the bull landed safely, I announced that students who were finished with their art projects would be allowed to paint the bull. (Three students cleaned and primed the bull to create a decent bovine canvas for my students to paint.)
Unbeknownst to me, the bull’s fascinating and absurd arrival had a cross curricular effect. I began to get word that students in an English class were writing stories about it and those in a business class were creating brochures about it.
THIS WAS IN 2006, a time when the world was experiencing many violent man-made and natural disasters. My students were proud of America’s active role in sending aid and how its citizens opened their wallets to offer support to those who were suffering. This concept became the theme for the bull and would evolve into a political commentary, as the young painters discussed how America even gave to some countries that don’t support the U.S. Thus, we had the name for our project, “America, the Big Cash Cow.”
During the coming days, students received permission from their other teachers to participate. While I taught my classes, they walked in quietly, grabbed what they needed and joined students already gathered around the bull. We discovered that music wasn’t the only universal language—creating art was too, as kids from different backgrounds worked together with a shared talent and interest.
Images of disasters around the world were painted on the bull in the shape of the state or country where they occurred. There was a scene from the Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami in Indonesia. The area between these sections was filled with depictions of American currency.
The underside of the bull became a boat floating in polluted Hurricane Katrina floodwaters. Its legs were firefighter’s boots, and the nose was a fist full of cash. Coin tears fell from its eyes, surrounded by eyes of hurricanes. The front of the ears were rear view mirrors reflecting a stop sign in front of money, and the backs of them were money-filled wallets. The tail was a coin-spitting tornado, and an American flag was painted diagonally across the bull’s back.
ON A SATURDAY IN SEPTEMBER, student volunteers worked on the bull during the South Greenville Fair. Present in the crowd was the chairman of Greenville County Council, Butch Kirven, who recognized the subject being illustrated on the bull and invited us to present the bull to County Council and allow it to be displayed for two weeks at Greenville County Square.
Later, when I told him we had received permission from school administrators, Kirven contacted newspapers, TV stations and The Board of Trustees of Greenville County Schools to request their attendance at Greenville County Council on October 3, 2006.
I received word that CBS affiliate WSPA TV7, was sending a reporter to interview my students at school. When the reporter and cameraman arrived, they asked my students several questions. I was proud to see how confident they were on camera.
On the evening of our presentation at County Council, cameras hovered and flashed blinding lights. My students were standing on the left side of the stage as I began our presentation. I shared the story of the project’s theme and rotated the bull as I explained its painted sections. Student speakers then stepped forward and passionately explained what the project and its theme had meant to them.
At the end of our presentation, I received a proclamation that October 3, 2006 was “Hillcrest High School Art Department Day” in Greenville County. I knew what the project had meant to my students, but we had no idea how what we had said that evening would affect those in the audience. As we walked off stage, I glanced over at the audience, where I saw nothing but tear-stained faces.
Sometimes the unplanned can be the most valuable part of a lesson. Students had learned about history, art, patriotism, collaboration and dedication during this project. But, perhaps the most important discovery they made was that their art and their words can have a profound effect on others.
From Fountain Inn, South Carolina, Eva K. Esrum was a high school art teacher for 36 years. She recently retired (June 2018), and continues to write about her teaching experiences.
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