Rowland Hall Middle School’s annex, a blink-and-you-might-miss-it room located just a few steps away from the cafeteria, may seem like it can’t contain much.
But if you happened to walk by the annex this October, when it was serving as a studio for visual art teacher Anne Wolfer’s public art class, the small room appeared to have magically expanded: passersby could catch a glimpse of more than a dozen students, a collection of paints and brushes, and, leaning against the perimeter, sixteen 18-by-48-inch medium density fiberboard panels—the building blocks of a 24-foot-long mural, titled Outer Space, that the students designed for the Lincoln Street Campus.
Public art, a class in which middle schoolers study media created for the general public’s enjoyment, covers everything from murals, sculpture, and architecture to graffiti, environmental art, and digital art. Students learn how to look at public art critically, said Anne, as well as work together on one or two of their own public art pieces each semester, deepening their understanding of what they have been studying. Past classes have created a community tree and wall hanging, but this is the first time a group has taken on a mural.
“The projects are getting bigger,” Anne laughed.
Participating in the behind-the-scenes steps of a large-scale art installation is beneficial to students, as it helps them confidently build artistic, collaborative, and even cross-subject skills.
It’s not just the mural’s dimensions that are large; the process for a project this size is too. But letting students participate in the behind-the-scenes steps of a large-scale art installation is beneficial, as it helps them confidently build artistic, collaborative, and even cross-subject skills. For instance, before ever putting brushes to fiberboard panels, the class collaborated on a theme (nature or space) and then voted on mural designs they each submitted. (The winning design, a colorful take on the solar system, was created by seventh grader Mina G.) The students also tapped into math skills to transfer their chosen design from paper to panels, twice gridding Mina’s drawing to enlarge it to mural size.
And because this project required a balance between individual and group work, students additionally learned how to showcase their own styles while also ensuring cohesion among the mural’s sixteen panels. To help guide the class through this part of the process, Anne enlisted help from her friend Trent Call, a Salt Lake City-based professional artist known for his murals, who joined the class for two periods to share his artistic approach as well as to coach students during their final days of painting.
“It’s fun to see the different styles,” said Trent, as he watched the middle schoolers add color to their boards. Periodically, he would stop next to a young artist to offer a technique for creating texture and movement—then encourage that person to share the knowledge with students next to them.
“Personalize it, make it your own, but collaborate,” said Trent. “Look at the panel on each side and see how you can work together.”
Across the room, the three eighth graders tasked with painting the Saturn panels, Chase D., Kendra L., and Samuel L., were taking Trent’s advice. Standing side by side facing their boards, they discussed the best methods for adding pink, white, and yellow clouds across the surface of the planet—an unplanned addition, they said, but one that made sense after Samuel recommended it.
“They have been working as a unit together,” said Anne of the group, with a smile.
Without [public art], our communities would be dull.—Student Nathan L.
It’s clear that helping students build the kind of collaborative skills that will benefit them not only in art class, but in life, drives Anne, and this type of project, with its intrinsic focus on teamwork—of teaching students to find solutions as a group and to take turns in leadership roles—brings her joy. “I want them to experience what it means to do collaborative work, intentionally and artistically,” she said.
It’s also clear the unique atmosphere of this class—with its focus on the art that injects pride and personality into the places we call home—is providing a special benefit to the community-builders of tomorrow. Eighth grader Nathan L. certainly believes this. As he added yellow and orange paint to the tail of a shooting star, he noted that public art not only makes a statement, but contributes to people’s enjoyment of the places where they live.
"Without it,” he pointed out, “our communities would be dull.”