COCA Arts Education: "Students unite around mural painting at Gilchrist"
Amidst drop cloths, brushes and cans of paint in every hue were dozens of volunteers who descended on Gilchrist Elementary School to help with a beautification project. The crown jewel of the project is a large-scale mural made possible through a Comcast Cares grant and serendipity.
Julie Hatfield is a Gilchrist parent with children in second and fifth grade. She recently toured the school with her mother, a muralist, who remarked that some of the artwork on campus needed attention. That innocent remark, perfectly timed to coincide with the Comcast Cares grant award, grew into an ambitious undertaking with an even more ambitious schedule.
Hatfield sprung into action and, after speaking with school administrators and teachers, dreamed up a project that she wasn’t even sure was realistic. “I called the Council on Culture & Arts and they encouraged me and connected me with our amazing partners at FSU that have already invented the wheel here.” The school was able to hire mural designer Sam Rosenstein, who has successfully executed several other local murals.
Rosenstein recently earned his doctoral degree from the FSU Department of Art Education and he knows a thing or two about murals. His dissertation, titled “Facilitating the Interactive Mural Experience as an Act of Creative Placemaking,” focuses on participatory mural design and installation.
“I am so grateful that COCA gave us the advice to pay him a stipend,” said Hatfield. “He has earned it probably four times over and is wedded to that piece of art now. He wants to see it be the very best it can be. He keeps coming out every chance he gets to work with us. We've seen tons of Sam and we love him. He's a part of our family now.”
A project of this scope has many contributors and Gilchrist’s art teacher, Victoria Mendenhall, was also part of the planning and logistics. So were her art students. “When we were in the development stage, we asked students to give us some ideas, many of which were incorporated into the design.” With just under 1,000 students enrolled, Gilchrist is the largest elementary schools in the district.
“We have so many kids here, sometimes kids may feel like they're unseen. Having every single one make a contribution to this mural, makes them feel like they're part of something bigger than they ever thought,” said Mendenhall.
To tie the mural project into her own classroom, Mendenhall taught her art students about other muralists, like Kelsey Montague. Known for her interactive murals of wings, Montague’s artwork can be seen all over the world. Gilchrist art students made their own wing drawings on paper which can be moved around the school for everyone to enjoy.
That collaborative spirit is imbued throughout the Gilchrist mural project and Hatfield sees additional benefits. “Not everyone feels comfortable about creating art. They may feel intimidated by picking up a paintbrush but this is so achievable for everyone of every age," said Hatfield, a freelance writer and wife of Tallahassee Democrat editor William Hatfield.
"You’re given a color and asked to paint within the lines so that intimidation factor strips away, the joy rises, and they feel that creative power. It's like an illumination that comes from within and radiates through their faces. People are really happy to do that.”
Lal Agarwal is a third grader at Gilchrist who likes painting and drawing. He was especially captivated by the mural’s dynamic composition. “I like all the shapes. There are pentagons, quadrilaterals and nonagons. That's a shape with nine sides,” he explained.
Fourth grader Sutton White agreed and added “I really like the design. It has a lot of color and it's really bright. I'm really proud and happy that I was part of this creation. It shows that we have fun at Gilchrist and it's a really good school.”
That was Hatfield’s vision all along. “We’re super excited about the change this is going to bring to the Gilchrist culture,” she said. “Anyone that comes to Gilchrist will see that mural as a centerpiece of our school and think, wow, they clearly have a community that cares.”
“This is the best of Tallahassee, the spirit of our community coming together. We love the arts, we love our children, we love our schools and if you say we have a need, we have a dream, we're going to rally and do everything we can to make that dream come true. That's what happened here.”
Amanda Karioth Thompson is the Interim Executive Director for the Council on Culture & Arts. COCA is the capital area’s umbrella agency for arts and culture (www.tallahasseearts.org).