Kindergarteners at Waynewood Elementary begin their art curriculum with the painting “Old Man and His Grandson” by the Italian painter Domenico Ghirlandaio. They discuss what emotional relationship they see between the two subjects. They also hear this quote from Ghirlandaio, “I wish they would give me the walls of Florence to paint. I’d cover them with stories.”
The walls of Florence are already taken, but last October the school and the PTA decided that students at all grade levels should have a wall in the library to cover with their stories. In the search for these stories, parents and teachers agreed they didn’t want to choose any specific author or creator, so they began reading traditional forms of literature to every student in every grade. Kindergarten teacher Angela Sanders read “Aesop’s Fables” to her students, discussing how they each had a moral and a message. Eleanor Contreras’s sixth-grade students read tall tales and wrote one about themselves. Besides fables and tall tales, students also read the four other categories of traditional literature: folktales, fairy tales, myths and legends. “A lot of these stories can’t be attributed to a specific author,” said Sanders, and most were passed down orally, adopted and adapted by many different cultures. “Almost every culture has a version of ‘Cinderella,’” Sanders said.
After the students explored the traditional stories, the planners of the mural project had decided that the students would write down their favorite elements, then submit them to a professional muralist who would draw a mural based on their suggestions. They found the muralist, William Marquez, through the Torpedo Factory. But Peggy Nigon, Waynewood’s art teacher, objected to the idea that Marquez should have to do all the work. “I thought… ‘[the students] are really good artists,’” said Nigon. “These kids are more talented than that. I want them to draw.” So the students were put to work in art class, imagining in crayon and marker the stories they had heard.
The mural project offered students the opportunity to actively participate in the creation of a story, instead of passively receiving the vision of another author, or a corporation.
“We didn’t want to reproduce art done by another author or illustrator,” said Sanders.
“It’s not Scooby-Doo or SpongeBob,” added Vero Autphenne, a mother of a kindergartener and the PTA’s coordinator of the mural project.
“No Disney,” Contreras declared.
Even after it is complete, the mural is designed to continue providing students the opportunity to use their imaginations. “[It has] instructional purposes beyond just art,” Sanders explained. The students will be able to “tell stories from it,’ inspired by its mélange of characters and stories and the interactions between them.
Students will interact with one another as they spin stories from the library’s mural. The individual stories represented in the mural are also products of an oral collaboration that has taken place over countless generations. The adults involved in the mural project all appreciate the power of oral literature, particularly for young children. They encouraged parents to read traditional literature to their children at home. They gave traditional literature to the parent guest readers who come into the school’s classrooms every week to read to students. They incorporated it into their buddy reading program, in which every younger student is assigned to an older one who can read aloud to his or her buddy. “It’s part and parcel of the curriculum,” said Sanders. “You’ve got to read to children, with children, and it’s got to be done by children.”
The adults described their acquaintances who still made reading aloud an important part of their lives, married couples reading to one another, a mother still reading to her teenage daughter. When Autphenne was still pregnant with her kindergartener, she said her husband read “Alice in Wonderland” and “Harry Potter” to her belly each night until she fell asleep.
WHILE PARENTS and teachers reminisced about the joys of reading, Marquez was introducing sixth grade students to the satisfactions and frustrations of covering walls with stories.
“You can’t just put on paint out of the can, that’s boring,” he tells Peter Laporta, who is filling in the outline of a belligerent billy goat. “It’s just a straight brown. You got to put something else in it.” Laporta suggests white paint. But Marquez encourages him to be more adventurous. “Put some red or some blue.”
Marquez said that he painted his first mural in the fourth grade, when he and his friends were asked to illustrate dinosaurs on long sections of heavy paper. Years later he returned to the school and found his work on display behind glass in the main lobby. “When I grew up you could see pictures of art in books, but you weren’t really sure how it all got made,” Marquez said. “I showed [the Waynewood students] the steps I went through. It doesn’t just happen.”
Marquez’s first job as a muralist came through a friend at a Jewish Community Center. “We just got together and nobody really knew how to paint. [But] everybody had an idea and they wanted to paint and you just make it come true for them,” said Marquez. The experience taught him a lesson about his art. “I like being in a group more than doing it myself.”
He says that with adults he enjoys “getting people who normally wouldn’t paint and you’re helping them see they can do something.” But children are different. “They don’t have any fear about painting… they’re open to it.”
Laporta complains to Marquez that the brown of his billy goat is still too boring. “Let’s add some blue to it,” Marques tells him. He suggests that instead of painting the entire body the same way, he should make different parts different colors. “Don’t just give up.”
The students are learning that making art is harder than putting a marker to a piece of construction paper. Marquez made sure to show them every step of the mural process. He said they learned “the hardest part is the stuff that goes before the painting.” He showed them how to create the grid that would allow him to transfer his sketch on a piece of paper to a much larger scale on the wall. He explained the equipment they would use, and had them unroll and roll up the plastic tarp that protects the library carpet. They bring out the brushes, paint cans, and other supplies, and he teaches them to mix paint in order to make their palette broader and their colors more interesting. “I want them to actually do the work, [to show them] work isn’t such a horrible thing. It leads to something.”
THE ARTISTS said they were motivated to volunteer by the prospect of making a piece of public art that would remain for a long time. “I thought it would be really cool to paint something on the wall that would stay there forever,” said Laporta. Sarah Munyan explained that she has “lots of brothers and sisters, older ones, and they would come back to the school and say, ‘Oh, I did that one,’ and I want to be able to do that too.” She listed the stained glass windows in the cafeteria as an example of the work her siblings had done that have remained in the school after they left.
But making art that will last is not easy. “It’s hard to get through the cracks in these walls,” said Allison Handy. Munyan said the biggest challenge was copying the mural from “the little piece of paper.” Laporta said he learned that color is more subtle than he had thought. “I wanted to do one bold color, but it looks a lot better with more.”
After the students had rolled up the tarp and packed away the paint cans, Marquez admired the mural, still only a sketch with a few patches of color. Icarus, Paul Bunyan, the pied piper, Rapunzel, and Athena splitting out of the head of Zeus were just some of the characters incorporated into the story on the wall. “It gives you ideas,” he said. “These kids, they get their imaginations working like crazy ... I’m excited [about the finished product]. You have the idea in your head and it always turns out completely different. And it’s always good.”