Cultural Quarterly
Spring/Summer 2009
Volume XXII, Number 2
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ON THE ARTS

‘Nothing to Something'
A Mural Grows at Taravella
By Beth Ravitz

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After the science and ecology students planted a butterfly garden in a school courtyard at Coral Springs’ J.P. Taravella High School in 2007, the school’s art teachers sensed that something was missing.  Art. 

The garden and its colorful flowers were surrounded by four blank walls.  Inspired by the science teachers’ success in writing and receiving a grant to fund the butterfly project, the art teachers thought that they might be able to pursue a similar course of action so that their students could create a permanent artwork on one of the walls. 

They believed that a public art installation would make the area more visual and accessible for the numerous students, teachers, parents and community members who visit it every day.  They envisioned a collaged mural that would make a statement about the importance of respecting the earth and our environment as well as the value of education and the arts in our world. 

They were fearless; they believed in what they were saying - but they had no idea how to go about it.

 

When they learned that they needed to have a credentialed public artist on board in order to move forward with a grant application, the Broward Cultural Division provided a list of artists and I was selected.  The Taravella team applied for and received a $9,300 Innovation Zone Grant from the county, and then we immediately met.  They showed me their ideas for the project and the 23’ x 10’ wall the principal had chosen near the butterfly garden.  From that point forward, I couldn’t tear myself away.

Since this was to be a public art project, we wanted to be sure that the students learned about the entire process of public art.  We set the stage with a PowerPoint presentation for approximately 200 children in the auditorium, then shortly thereafter we took a field trip to see public art projects in the county.  We gave the students links to the artists’ websites so they could not only learn more about the projects we visited, but also see more of the artists’ work.

Then it was time for the students to start creating.  We handed out sketchbooks and told them to start sketching around the mural’s theme.  After collecting and going through all the sketches, I highlighted about 30 ideas and distributed them to everyone.  We started cutting and pasting, then drew out the idea to scale. 

At this point, I explained to the students that they were now public artists.  I told them this can go on their resumes as their first project.  It’s totally legitimate to get them their first job!

 

While the students were sketching, I also told them to start collecting recycled materials.  It could be anything - rusted metal, broken mirrors, old wires, stuff they found in the garage.  As they brought in dishes, glass, metal and lots of other things, we sorted the materials into boxes.  

After we finalized the design, I asked the students to start thinking about a color palette.  We purchased 200 white tiles, divided them up, glazed and fired them, then smashed them and put them into boxes according to color.

We then began the process of transforming the mural from design to reality.  One night, we took the 23” by 10” drawing, put it into a projector and drew it onto the wall in charcoal at full size.  We taped brown wrapping paper on the floor of a classroom, graphed that out and started putting the tiles around the paper.  Some things we were sure about at that point, and some things we weren’t.  When something worked, we put it on the wall.

That’s when the brainwork was done, and the labor began!  The students were very reluctant in the beginning, especially the boys.  We were using ladders and scaffolding, but I never asked anyone to do anything I wasn’t doing, too. 

As they began seeing progress, I couldn’t tear them away.  When school ended at 2:40 p.m., three of the teachers and a core group of students stayed with me.  Like a scene out of Tom Sawyer, passersby wanted to help.  One student asked, “Do you think I could take an art class next year?”  These reactions were far and above what we expected from the grant.  It was probably the most positive experience I’ve ever had doing a public art project.

 

Because the grant funds weren’t released until late October, we were on a very tight timeframe for the project.  We had to be finished by mid-December, so I had to be very stern.  The students needed to learn the seriousness of what we were doing, so I didn’t cut them any slack.  Still, they were terrific.

In addition to putting up the tile, I decided what motifs should be three-dimensional.  I taught the kids how to sculpt from clay, and they were hooked.  I had to throw them out at 6 o’clock at night!

After it was finished and grouted, we took the recycled items and epoxied them or screwed them into the mural.  These became embellishments - an old clock was the center of the sun.  Old dishes became portholes.  We added a wire butterfly.  We had a lot of happy accidents, but that’s all part of it.  Sometimes you’re lucky and sometimes you’re not.  It became an incredibly joyous experience.

At the ribbon-cutting, I hated that it was ending.  The experience was fantastic in every way.  It was a great source of pride for the children and their parents.  Another outcome was to make people aware of the positive aspects of art.  We definitely did that – over and above! 

The feedback has been very, very positive.  Every day I bump into people who say, “I can’t believe you did that.”

Since then, other schools have called.  I would be happy to do it over again.  I’m trying to be an advocate.  There are so many benefits to the children – and to all of us.  Artists have the power to start from nothing and make something that resonates in your heart, makes you feel good and makes the world a little bit more beautiful.

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