By Joseph Robertia
Elementary school art projects often are about easy mediums and quick results — a la macaroni noodles glued to a piece of construction paper. Students at Mountain View Elementary took on a much larger project, that only now — two years later — has finally been completed and hung.
“It’s huge,” said Joy Falls, the artist who oversaw the project. “It’s about 3 feet tall by 51 feet long and it’s made of tiles, each made by an individual student. There are more than 500 tiles in all.”
Falls connected with the school as an Artist in Residence, a program offered by the Alaska State Council on the Arts. She has a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Montana and has taught art classes at Kenai Peninsula College, but she said she is passionate about teaching children creative skills.
“It was a wonderful opportunity to have something permanent for these children,” she said.
The project was allotted three weeks, not much time for the huge undertaking, particularly since the students were going to have to learn a concept that is quite abstract compared to the two-dimensional drawing and painting they had known before.
“One of my fortes is 3-D arts, which is an odd concept for children. The theme they chose was, ‘Where We Live: From Kenai Lake to Cook Inlet,’ so they had to make a relief coming off each tile of an Alaskan plant or animal, such as an eagle with the beak protruding from the tile,” Falls said.
The project is more than just a bunch of individual tiles jumbled together. Once locked in place, like the pieces of a puzzle, a larger piece of artwork begins to emerge.
“It’s superimposed,” Falls said. “So if you look at it in its entirety, you can see it’s also a map of where we live. The highways, the mountains, the hospital, even the Princess Lodge — they’re all there, and from a child’s perspective, which is different than ours.”
The project was completed in three weeks, but then came the hard part. The volume of clay that needed to be cooked overwhelmed the school’s tiny kiln.
“In ceramics there are two firings: a bisque to burn out impurities and harden the clay, then the tiles are glazed and colored, then they’re fired again,” she said. “This had to be done for each piece, so we’d load up the kiln, fire it up, then let it cool down. It was very time-consuming, even before it broke.”
In an attempt to finish the project, Falls got permission from Kenai Peninsula College to use the Kenai River Campus’ much larger kiln, but the project still took a lot of time and effort.
“It still took two firings with each one taking three to four days with heating up the kiln and cooling it down,” she said.
With the firing finally finished, the mural had to be hung, but due to its size and weight, it couldn’t be hung just anywhere. It took two years to find the right place.
“Installing it was a huge undertaking,” said Cindy McKibben, a second-grade teacher at the school, who also oversaw the development of the project.
“To find a wall that would support it they had to look at structural plans and then build a scaffold to put it up,” McKibben said. “It ended up being hung in our atrium, the long hallway with skylights that connects the north and south wing of the school.”
Hung prior to the start of the current school year, it is in a place where the students see it every day, including many who worked on the project.
“The kids think it is amazing. It’s crazy how huge it is now that it is done, and that is really exciting for them,” Falls said. “I think it also helps the kids have pride in the school and have a sense of community.”