Petaluma students creating massive mural while working individually

Upon completion, each student’s piece will be connected to the others to form a nearly 27- by 7-foot mural.|

When ArtStart leaders started tossing around themes and ideas for a massive, student-led mural to be created this year at Casa Grande High School, lead art teacher Josey Richter didn’t have many demands.

But she did have one request.

“I told them ’I want something cheerful,’ ” she said. “I knew we would be working on it in a distance way, and all of us need to be cheered up. … And it’s one of the first things that students would see when they walk into the school each day. It needs to be uplifting.”

The folks at ArtStart, a nonprofit group founded in 1999 to promote and teach young artists, made a suggestion — an array of California poppies, with loads of bees and butterflies. Each participating student was given one or two blank canvases and assigned a subject. Upon completion, each student’s piece will be connected to the others to form a nearly 27- by 7-foot mural.

It’s unofficially dubbed “Pollinators.”

“We have seen the layout — it’s a garden-like scene,” said Casa art student and mural contributor Julia Boaz, a sophomore. “I think it’s really kind of cool, a whole bunch of living things working together.”

Exactly the idea, backers said.

When classrooms closed as the coronavirus pandemic took hold locally in March, ArtStart leaders had to rethink their programming. How would they lead projects? How would young artists meet and learn from other artists? How would they reach kids?

Many Sonoma County educators were asking themselves the same questions as they lost the ability to interact with students face to face. Instead, they only saw students’ faces in tiny video boxes on their computer screens.

For art teachers, long used to looking over a student’s shoulder or making an instructive stroke of a paint brush, the conundrum of how to teach and connect seemed particularly complex.

ArtStart leaders hoped to solve their question of how to reach kids by offering options for local art teachers looking for innovative ways to connect with students.

An online summer workshop hosted by the Sonoma County Office of Education gave Jennifer Tatum, ArtStart’s creative director, a chance to describe to area educators the group’s ideas for school mural projects. ArtStart would deliver kits — in Casa Grande’s case 50 of them — replete with paints, brushes, canvas-type materials and a QR code printed right on the box that takes the student to a tutorial video created by ArtStart artists. The classroom teacher would direct students in their day-to-day creation of their piece of the mural and deliver the pieces to ArtStart when the students finished.

The kits and the crafting of the mural are meant to take a portion of the load off teachers, but also to make what can seem like an overwhelming project — for both teachers and students — more bite size, Tatum said.

“There is already so much going on right now that is so challenging, it’s really comforting to see something you can step into safely,” she said. “How is it broken down, how can I do it? If you get a blank page, that can be overwhelming.”

For Richter, having a massive group project conducted during distance learning and through computer screens has had its challenges. How can she offer advice? How can she demonstrate technique? How does she make sure her students have the tools they need?

She likened it to teaching someone to drive when the instructor isn’t in the car: “You can say ’Don’t run into the curb,’ but it’s easier to grab the wheel.”

The guidance these days comes through the ArtStart video tutorials, Richter’s classroom Zoom lessons and some conversations between students.

“I definitely have texted a few of my friends, ’Oh mine looks weird, what does yours look like?’ “ Boaz said. She was assigned bees.

The wall near Richter’s classroom where the mural will eventually live is 27 feet long and 7 feet high, by Richter’s measurement. That makes the mural students are now working on four times the size of the one Casa students crafted a year ago.

A similar project is unfolding with art students at Rincon Valley Charter School-Sequoia in Santa Rosa where students are working with the theme of flight. And both follow a massive effort to craft a mural from more than 100 young artist submissions who answered a call to create: “Shelter in Place: A Visual Portrayal.”

Those images are currently featured in a gallery at artstart.us.

“I think what this sheltering in place and what this pandemic has done is we all focused on what is needed, what is real and what is our mission,” said Barbara Ihde, vice president of the ArtStart board of directors. “ArtStart is supporting any young person who has any desire at all to create.”

And that desire, that need, she said, has been intense. “They have a lot of deep emotions about what is going on in the world.”

At Casa Grande, the plan is to have all of the individual mural pieces in hand by January. ArtStart artists will then prep the wall on campus. They will brush on a glue-like substance to each piece and essentially squeegee them onto the wall, Tatum said.

Ideally, students will have a role in the installation, but that will depend on the activity of the coronavirus and any rules on group activities.

Senior AP art student Emily Melton expressed hope that students may be able to help install the mural. She was part of the group of Richter’s students who worked on last year’s much smaller mural and she’d like to have a hand in the final push this spring, as perhaps one of her final acts as a Gaucho.

“I think it would be really cool if we were allowed to do that,” she said.

But regardless, the process of making this mural in such a different way has already been positive, she said.

“Art has always been something that I have loved to do. It’s kind of an outlet for me when things are crazy or even when they are not crazy,” she said. “It’s a way for me to express different things, how I’m feeling, that I can show people.”

For Tatum, there have certainly been challenges to programming art projects and mentoring during the pandemic. But art has also provided solace for so many and people have accessed ArtStart in ways that might not have happened in so-called normal circumstances. The barrier to entry, as it were, has been lowered.

“My take is it’s extremely hopeful,” she said. “I feel like we have reached more people than we have ever reached before by doing it this way. There are a lot of people that would not come out and would not think they could do this.”

“This is such a great example of ’we don’t give up, we do stay connected,’ “ she said. ”There are infinite possibilities of working this way and representing the voice of so many more artists.“

Richter, too, sounded a tone of optimism.

The mural at Casa Grande is providing a connection that might not have been had three of her art classes not been working in distanced coordination toward one goal. Each student has one or two pieces of the bigger picture they must complete and deliver to make the mural whole.

“I think it’s a good reminder, yes we are still apart but we are still connected and soon we will be together,” Richter said. “It’s a metaphor for what is going on.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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