A few years ago, I found myself in a new situation as an art educator. After seven years of teaching high school art, I was embarking upon a new adventure: middle school. Here I was, several years into my career, learning the nuances of both a new school district as well as a new age group… not to mention new courses to teach. In addition to sixth, seventh, and eighth grade general art classes, my predecessor had begun a Mural Arts class at Marlboro Middle School.
That first year, I quite literally fell into teaching this course. The students and the mural themes had been chosen prior to my employment. Rough drafts of designs had been sketched. The murals were designed around inspirational words, and that year’s words were Imagine and Reach. Throughout the year, we learned painting techniques, designed our murals, and painted our hearts out. Serendipitously, the choir teacher that year had chosen John Lennon’s Imagine to sing at our school’s 8th grade graduation. My principal came to me with a fabulous idea. Because the murals were on canvas, they could be easily transported. What if the Imagine mural was displayed at graduation? Would I be okay with that? Of course, I loved the idea.
Imagine, Acrylic on Canvas, 12’ x 4’, 2013
Having the mural correspond to the song our choir teacher chose was, in all honesty, a happy accident. It was great to have our students recognized at graduation as well as visually support the 8th grade graduation choir. The graduation performance gained new meaning for both our choir and art students. This experience got me thinking … what if we had actually planned this? How could we have merged both our music and art programs to create a cohesive artistic display at our 8th grade graduation? How might this impact the students’ perceptions of both the mural as well as their graduation performance?
This year proved the perfect time for us to try this out. I had a supportive administration and a music department open to brainstorming possible collaborations with me. We began with a discussion of possible songs. I gave the possible song choices to my mural arts students and we chose Seasons of Love from the Broadway musical Rent by Jonathan Larson.
We are a 1:1 Chromebook district, so students from both the Mural Arts Class and 8th Grade Choir Classes used their Chromebooks to aid in the creative process. First, students searched images and saved those they felt related to the song. Next, they shared these images with me through Google Docs. The live documents enabled student and teacher collaboration in many ways. Most importantly, choir students who I did not see in class were still able to contribute and discuss ideas with me. After many ideas were compiled, Mural students were asked to complete the task of finalizing a design. I wanted them to contemplate the following questions, all inspired by the song and this cooperative task: What is friendship? What does it mean to celebrate your friends and focus on the good things in your life? What are some images that the song invokes? How can you “measure your life in love?” How can you celebrate your friendships, from simple experiences together to meaningful ones? And lastly, how can we successfully merge all of these ideas to create one cohesive and unified piece of art?
It was decided that each panel would visually represent one of the four seasons. The technical work of creating the mural was done by mural art students.
The mural in progress.
Groups met two days per week for approximately 50 minute classes. This entire process took about three months to complete. This was the culminating project of the Mural Arts class, who had all been working on the technical skills needed for large scale painting since the beginning of the school year.
The completed mural. Acrylic on Canvas, 12’ x 4’, 2016.
Although transporting and hanging the completed mural at graduation took a little skill and planning on the part of our administration and custodial staff, it was hung prior to the ceremony directly next to the graduation chorus.
The mural on display at graduation and next to our 8th Grade Graduation Chorus.
This collaboration proved meaningful to all students. Choir students, even those not directly involved in the design, were more motivated to perform knowing that the mural students were creating a painting inspired by their performance. Mural art students were inspired knowing that their painting would proudly hang next to the choir as they sang the words of its inspiration. All students involved exhibited higher order thinking skills as they found deeper meaning and imagery in a song’s lyrics.
Through the creation of the mural as well as our choir’s performance, we quite literally brought art and music together. Students raised their voices and their paintbrushes, making connections both in and out of the classroom.
Alison Wallace is an art educator with experience teaching K-12 art in several districts and private settings. Currently she is an art teacher at Marlboro Middle School where she teaches General Art and an admissions-based Mural Art class to select 8th grade students. In addition, she works with the school’s special needs population and integrates art education with social skills instruction. During the summer, she is both the assistant director and creative arts specialist at HI-STEP, a therapeutic summer program for children with special needs.