UFV visual art students transform Mission elementary school gym into artwork

To most students, summer means relaxation; books and papers become a bad dream, the sun comes out from behind its customary curtain of clouds, and days are filled with sunshine and maybe even a trashy novel.

But to the sixteen UFV students currently enrolled in VA 390, summer also means giving back to the community. With the instruction and supervision of UFV Visual Arts professor Chris Friesen, they’re transforming the blank wall of West Heights Elementary in Mission into an immense and brightly-hued mural.

“Students taking summer classes are a special breed,” Friesen says, smiling as he watches a student outline a butterfly on the gym wall of West Heights Elementary. “Most students value their summer.”

The title of the course is Community Art Practice, and Friesen says the experience is like no other art course offered at UFV. This is the sixth time that Friesen has taught this course, and the fourth time the course involved working with an elementary school.

“When you do art for a classroom, it’s generally an assignment that you hand in, and the class gets to see, and the professor gets to see,” Friesen explains. “But here their art becomes a living piece of work; it has an audience. It’s an extremely rewarding, validating experience — something that goes beyond the pedagogical practice of learning and execution.”

The project also involves a lot of planning on the part of the students — after all, Friesen says, once the mural is finished it will be a part of the school for years or maybe decades to come. It’s a hugely collaborative process, starting with the students meeting with a school committee to discuss ideas.

“The students split into four groups and each design a potential image, and the final mural is chosen by the school,” Friesen says. “No matter whose design gets selected, the whole class rallies around that one idea, and together we realize that vision.”

The final design chosen by the school depicts an open book against a nature background, and students are carefully adding final details to butterflies, children within the mural, and blades of grass. Along with emphasizing literacy and imagination, the students hoped to reflect the multicultural aspect of Mission in the mural.

“It incorporates different cultures – there’s a Hindi design here, and then the cherry blossoms for Japanese culture on that side, and native art above with the thunderbird and the butterflies,” points out Tara Van Haaster, one of the students working on the mural. “I love the multicultural elements of the image, and I think that was important to include.”

As well as the main image on the wall of the gym, the class chose to extend the themes of the mural into the rest of the school; students have painted large butterflies on two other walls of the gym, and the students have continued that image into the hallway leading to the gym. The native art style of the design ties into the butterfly image of the main mural, Friesen says, and is a way of bringing the mural into the whole school.

“You can see where the butterflies start in pages of the book of the main mural, and then continue on to the other walls of the gym,” Friesen explains. “It’s kind of a metaphor of growth and transformation that continues on into the rest of the school.”

The mural is due to be finished sometime in August, and Friesen says that it’s been an ultimately rewarding experience — for the students of the class, the students of the elementary school, and the community itself.

“It’s a way to give a gift to the community and to the students at this school,” Friesen says, watching one of his students shade in the edges of a butterfly. “Telling history is important, and that’s part of what art can do. But it can also give a vision for the future.”

More photos of the project in progress can be seen here: http://goo.gl/EXQuI


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