The fourth and fifth-graders of Jeanette Bair’s art classes at Highlandville Elementary School are poised to complete a public art project more than a year in the making — a mural built from tiles custom-made by the students themselves. But the installation of this incredible piece will mark an even greater milestone — the close of an important lesson in dedication, investment in the community, and representing the self as a part of a whole.
After her classes studied fossils and the impressions they leave behind in rock, Bair decided to design an art curriculum around the science. The lesson developed into a tutorial in plaster mold-making, which reached further into the two-step firing process traditionally used for pottery glazed in a kiln.
Bair (pictured at left with student-crafted ceramic "fossils") wanted to create an outdoor mosaic, but she knew early on the project needed a fresh spin to capture the spirit of Highlandville. The fired molds do all the same work as colored tiles, but also give the mural a patchwork of textures and shapes sure to capture the sensory interest of children and adults alike.
To create each individual piece, Bair and her students roll clay to a thickness of less than an inch and a half, cut it into pieces, and texture it by scoring it with a point or pressing it into a mold. The pieces are arranged on racks that are stacked inside her small electric kiln, and baked until rigid. After these pieces cool, the students dip them into colored glazing and put them back into the kiln for an eight-our glaze firing at about 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit, which hardens the pieces into something about as strong as dishwasher-safe stoneware. Bair said she stays an hour later on firing days to make sure the process is completed safely.
While Bair and her group of young artists has had to figure things out as they go in terms of tile-firing, Bair said, they do have a plan for the mural as a whole. The pieces will form a pixellated array of winding, fish-packed streams, rolling hills, a sunny sky shining through leafy tree branches, and large owls, the mascot of Spokane R-7 School District to which Highlandville Elementary belongs.
“I wanted to bring science and conservation to a piece kids could relate to on a personal level,” Bair said.
With the help of her students (some pictured at right), Bair created and projected the image onto a large piece of paper to create a blueprint for the group to follow. Some pieces have dedicated locations where they work the best and others will be arranged on-the-go as the tiles are permanently affixed to a piece of concrete board. Volunteers are already at work on an angle-iron frame to attach the mural to the blank concrete below the electronic announcement board by the school’s front door.
The project has taken a year to complete, Bair said, with hundreds of children working on the piece in turns. Each of her classes has the opportunity to help build the mural once a week. Bair estimates the mural will weigh between 300 and 500 pounds. Regardless of these numbers, the kids are most interested in the project as representative of their personal expression.
“It’s really cool that we made it out of just ‘fossils’,” said fifth-grader Michael Gideon. “People will get to enjoy work done at our school; they don’t usually get to see it.”
Fourth-grader Olivia Christenson likes that she can see herself in this collaboration. “It’s pretty fun,” she said. “Depending on how you make the designs, it can be your own work of art.”
With luck and continued progress, Bair hopes to have the piece fully complete and hung by the end of the year. She is hoping the effort will earn her enough funding to replace the effective, though small and outdated 1970s kiln she is currently using to complete the project.
“Community, education and art are really my passion,” Bair said, adding that she is glad her classes could create something meaningful to hang for the public and improve the look, the reputation, and the visibility of Highlandville Elementary.
By Jason Brandt Schaefer, submitted on behalf of Placeworks, the Rural Schools Partnership and the Rural Education Office in Springfield, Mo, home of our Missouri Ozarks Hub.