Friday, May 4, 2012

Mural Artist in Residence..... Chapter One.

Let's take it back.  Waaayyyy back.  Ok, only about a year back.  This is the story of how I became an Artist in Residence.

To be perfectly honest, doing school murals and being an artist in residence sort of fell into my lap.  Last spring, I was working in a local bakery, spending my days packaging cookies and helping customers navigate the "gluten-free" section.  My nights were spent at my parent's house,  longing to return to Madagascar, where I had recently spent 2 years living and working as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  Re-adjusting to being home in the United States was difficult, and having arrived only 4 months earlier, I still felt stuck between two worlds, not quite sure where I fit into either one.  I was more than a little lost.  But that's another story.  In March, 2011, I found a new place to belong. 

One day I got an email from a local elementary school principal, asking if I would be interested in doing a school mural project to begin in a couple of weeks.  The artist who was going to do it had to back out because of a family emergency.  The principal had been given my name by someone in the building who knew I was a mural artist.  So, somewhat apprehensively, but also enthusiastically and maybe naively, I accepted the job. 

Duration:  3 weeks, 4 teaching hours each school day.  I was lucky my former boss at the bakery was willing to arrange my work schedule around this!  
Students Included:  ALL students in the school, grades kindergarten through 5th!
Theme of Project:  "Sustainability" - Their school is a certified "Green School" in our school district, meaning they use solar power for many operations, compost, run a school garden program, among other "green" awareness programs for the students.  Quite amazing and wonderful.  I was very glad to work within this theme as it is close to my heart as well. 
Materials Used:  Outdoor quality acrylic paints.  
Size:  We worked on boards which when completed, were mounted on the school's outdoor wall. Each panel was 4' x 8' and there were 5 of them, totaling in an 8' x 20' mural!
Location:  Adams Elementary School, Eugene, OR. 

school mural
Adams Elementary School Mural: "Sustainability"

The Hardest Part Was:  This was my first time doing a mural with kids.  It was basically, my first time teaching kids art, really (at least, to American kids.  I had taught a couple random art lessons to kids in Madagascar).  The residency was set up so that each classroom would come to my room where the mural project was set up, for 45 minutes.  Now, 45 minutes is not much time to get kids quiet and focused, explain the lesson, get them going on an art project, and then clean up.  Luckily, the teachers were there, armed with parent volunteers much of the time.  There was no possible way to get 25-35 kids working on the same mural project at the same time, I at least had the sense to not try that.  I kept the class busy with drawing projects while I pulled 4-5 kids out at a time to come help me paint the mural, then we kept rotating the small groups of painters to make sure everyone got turns.  This is still how I structure my school murals residencies.  I teach simple art projects, usually trying to make them relative to the theme of the mural, for all students to work on.  Once I explain the art project, teachers can keep kids going on them so that I can focus on getting kids through their turns painting the mural. It works...which brings me to successes. 
Biggest Success Was: Finding my own "residency structure" that works well. That was a success that I've based all other school murals on since.  I would say my biggest success for this one, was just making it through to the end.  My mom has been a teacher for somewhere around 30 years so I would go to her at the end of every day that first week, desperate for any kernels of teaching wisdom she could offer.  By the end of 3 weeks, I had found my "groove" with the students.  I also discovered my school residency teaching method, which I will expand upon at some point.  For now though, I basically learned that if I mixed the colors and just gave each kid a little bowl of it and a brush, things would go smoother.
I Learned: 
• How to talk to kids better (Justin Bieber, anyone? Yes? No?). 
• How to structure my school residencies in a way that worked for me, the students and the teachers.
• How to paint a mural on panels (this was brand new to me, too). 
• That kids SHOULD NOT under any circumstances, be present while you are priming walls or panels. This stuff is nasty, probably toxic and stains clothes. Which makes parents very unhappy. Oops.
• Everything.  This was the steepest learning curve ever.  I had no idea what I was doing. 


I got through this.  Beginnings are usually hard, right?  In the first week, I just wanted it to be over.  I was unsure of myself in almost every step I took towards completing this project.  I wanted to be at the end, looking back, already.  Here I am, over a year later, looking back.  I made it through to the other side of this challenge.  I still have plenty of challenges now when I do residencies, of course, and I know I won't ever stop learning new ways to improve them.  But now, I love love love my job.  
I had to get through that difficult first one to make it to now, where I feel lucky to do what I do.  

After this project, I got officially hired by my local arts organization, Lane Arts Council.  This organization is the one that organizes art walks and also school residencies in our county schools.  They are the ones that paid me, and still pay me.  Now, I am on their roster of teaching artists and local schools may request me to come be an artist in residence and do murals with kids.  I have worked with many more schools since then (*blogs soon to come!).

This story reminds me not to get discouraged.  Push through the difficult "beginnings" and in the middle, you can look back and see just how far you've come. 

Happy new beginnings!

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