My students and I were asked to create an auction piece for the annual fundraiser for our local education foundation. The foundation hosts an annual fundraiser and it’s a big gala event. They get sponsors and have a large auction to raise money to support the local pubic school district.
Normally, the middle school does this piece so it was a big honor to have our elementary students asked to complete an art piece. The piece is usually very large in size and includes innovative techniques or skills.
One year, the middle school teacher used beads and made a replica of one of Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers paintings. The entire piece was also covered in resin, so it had texture and was very shiny. It stood out in the crowd of auction pieces. In other words, the bar and expectation was set very high.
Since I teach elementary level art, my students don’t have as many developed skills as the older students. Elementary students are talented but their knowledge base of materials and techniques isn’t as developed as a middle-schooler. (I also can’t work with resin in an elementary art room!)
So, we had to work on a smaller scale. I kept going back to the thought that, if they work small, the pieces could be put together and it would make the overall piece really big. I just couldn’t get it out of my head.
EVENTUALLY, I DECIDED TO WORK with a historical photograph of our town. Each student would get a small piece of the picture and, when they were completed, all of these small pieces would come together to create a larger picture. This made painting such a large photograph less intimidating and, no matter what the ability level of the student, they could be successful.
To make the project go smoother and a bit faster, I pre-drew the photo on the panels, since we didn’t have much time. I used Fredrix cut-edge mini canvases, which measured 2.75″ x 2.75″. These canvas panels come in packages of 60 and I ordered two. The totally piece used all 120 canvas panels.
One weekend, I came to school to draw on the canvas panels. It took me about 5 hours to get the perspective right and decide which details to include. I chose to leave some out because they were just too tiny to translate well in a painting, such as a theater’s marquee sign with the title of the current film. (The movie playing was A Tank on the Burma Road, which dates the photo to the early 1940s.)
BEFORE STUDENTS STARTED PAINTING, we discussed value scales, shadows, highlights and mixing black and white to create shades and tints. Normally, I would say that using only blacks, whites and browns for these concepts isn’t the best idea for students in fifth grade, but they were so receptive to the learning. I think it was because they knew that the artwork was important to the auction. We were also all very excited about being asked to create the piece.
The students enjoyed working on the panels, because we don’t get a huge budget for the art room at the elementary level. So, participating in this fundraiser was a special treat because it meant we got to buy new supplies! Plus, painting on the small panels was almost like painting on a real canvas. Each student painted at least one and, if interested, they could help someone else finish his or hers.
Some students chose to just paint one, while others loved the challenge and painted multiples. In total, we worked on this project for four 45-minute class periods.
To help with the distribution of the tiles, I made a grid of our inspiration photograph. Each space on the grid was numbered and it correlated with the same number on the back of the pre-drawn canvas panel tile. I then put the tiles into piles of easy, medium and difficult. The sky and road tiles were placed into the easy piles, building tiles with only one window were put into the medium, and all other tiles placed into the difficult pile.
THE ENTIRE PIECE became a huge collaboration among the fifth-grade students. They would work together to help finish someone else’s tile or to add small details. I had groups of kids with consecutive numbers sitting next to each other, working together to make sure their tiles matched. It was an art teacher’s dream!
The mural was nearly finished when Mother Nature gave us an entire week of snow days. So, I took the canvas tiles, paint and paint supplies home with me and ended up finishing the last of the tiles myself. I also did some outlining and adding historically accurate writing to the storefront signs. The tiles were glued onto black foam board. The final piece measured 21″ x 44″.
The auction was very successful and our artwork sold for $1,000! Everyone was thrilled and so excited that our mural sold for so much. The artwork was professionally framed and hangs prominently in the local business with the winning bid.
There is already talk about what the collaborative mural will be for next year. I have started searching historical photographs for inspiration that we can turn into our next mural!
Jennifer Hamilton teaches K-5 Visual Arts at Tomek-Eastern Elementary School in Fenton, Michigan.
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