Sixteen Newton elementary school students collaborated to create a mural to help people connect while still social distancing. Featuring a streetscape mural, the piece is meant to be used as a backdrop for photos that people can post to social media and interact while apart.
Creating things is an innate need for people as they navigate the world around them, at least that’s how Newton elementary art teacher Lauren Roush sees things. She views community art as an essential piece to help people “connect with each other and care for their community and become democratically engaged.”
Roush took this mentality into a project for her graduate program through the University of Northern Iowa. As she was exploring ideas for her research project, she wanted to continue to dig into the benefits art has within the community. She wanted to involve her art students at Aurora Heights and Emerson Hough who already seek other art opportunities.
“I already have a history; I’ve done murals and included students before so it was nothing out of my realm,” Roush said.
She asked students if they would be interested in participating in the project. The broad student list narrowed to eight students from AH: Ivan McGhghy, Davin and DJ Sablan, Mary Jo Ham, Hannah Emary, Jewel Noga, Colbie Ware, and Maddox Bartlett; seven students from EH: Alexis Trout, Brandon Holmes, Madison Cunningham, Leighton Sage, Devynne Powell, Atley Rudkin, Ava Rogahn; and one student from Newton Christian School: Karrigan Moore who previously attended AH.
“I am glad my teacher chose me,” Rudkin said.
Under normal circumstances, these students would have worked side-by-side brainstorming ideas, painting and creating this work of art. However, the project had to be altered in order to navigate social distancing guidelines during the ongoing health crisis.
“We weren’t going to be sharing materials across classes and we had to be really mindful of the students that were getting together in close proximity, and it was just too difficult between two buildings,” Roush said.
Instead, Roush had planning sessions separately with each group at the different schools, with remote students Zooming in to be included. All the students’ ideas were recorded in a Google Doc for easy sharing between the schools.
For Roush, it was important the students were making the decisions about what the project would be.
“I wanted them to have agency and ownership over this. So determining what it was, what it will look like, what was the design, how were they going to do it, how were they going to get money for it, where are they going to put it,” she said.
During each session, Roush would put the running list of ideas in the shared document. Then, she would go to the next school and discuss the ideas. The students would add or take away until they solidified exactly what they wanted for the piece.
The students agreed they wanted the mural to be specific to Newton with a lot of bright colors. Roush said one of the most important points that came out of both elementary schools was for the mural to showcase diversity and to include people of all ethnicities.
“I was thoroughly impressed by the maturity of their ideas,” Roush said. “The (diversity) idea kind of happened last year when some of these students were analyzing the murals for a project. They were in second grade at the time. Then, they were asked if they could create any mural they would want, what would you do. One of them said, ‘I would create a mural with people who looked like me because there aren’t any in Newton.’ That conversation stuck.”
After the planning sessions, Roush put their ideas into an initial design and the students would critique it. After changes were made and the design was approved by the whole group, it was time to start the next step in the process.
The project needed funding to purchase the supplies. The students worked with Linda Klepinger, director of the Centre for Arts and Artists, to get a grant for the project through Walmart.”
“Please credit our local Newton Walmart for their generous grant support of supplies for the creative endeavors of our youth,” Klepinger said.
Roush drew the design on the canvas and then separated it into 16 different panels for each student to complete on their own. Each student received their own set of brushes and paint from the supplies purchased at the Newton Walmart.
The students either took their section home or worked on it during free time at school. Once all 16 panels were complete, Roush put them back together and sealed the completed mural with a UV protectant so it would be OK to be displayed outside in the elements.
The students enjoyed working on the project and told Roush how they felt about the part in the project.
“It was fun and challenging to do but enjoyed it very much,” Jewel Noga said.
“My favorite part of creating the mural is that we all worked together and had fun,” Maddy Cunningham said.
“I enjoyed making something for the community,” DeVynne Powell said.
“I just would LOVE to do it again!” Mary Jo Ham said.
Now came the question of where the mural was going to go in Newton. During the planning stages, students mentioned several places to mural could be placed. But in the end, the group decided it should go somewhere at the library.
Roush contacted youth services librarian Phyllis Peter, who has helped coordinate with the library board to place the mural. The students plan to attend the board meeting this week to present the project and help determine where the mural will be placed outside the library.
“I was excited to have the library be a spot for the project as we are open to all in the community, and I think it will be a great experience for the students to experience talking to the library board at our Thursday meeting. It’s always a great thing when we can collaborate with the schools and we are always open to that possibility,” Peter said.
In the meantime, Roush had the mural placed outside the Centre for Arts and Artist facility in Newton so the community had the opportunity to see what this group of students had put together. Community members are encouraged to take a look at the mural and post photos to social media with the hashtag #CreateAndConnect.
Now that the mural project has been completed and the students are working on the final step in the process, Roush admits she felt overwhelmed in the beginning. She wasn’t quite sure how it was going to work with all of the new circumstances and uncertainty revolving around the pandemic.
“However, it got done and got ready to be put into the community the same week we decided to go remote. I think it was a really apt time that we decided to do this, to connect with community members and be inclusive during a time when we are physically connected. I think that it made it more difficult, for sure. But it made it more meaningful,” Roush said.