When M. K. Rawlings Elementary School art teacher, Barbara Stroer, approached Principal, Kathleen Furness, about a mural project in 2013, neither anticipated that it would turn into a two-year endeavor of epic proportions.
“I knew it wouldn’t happen overnight,” Stroer recounted, “but I didn’t know just how big it would eventually become.” And big it did become, evolving into four recently installed murals, a distinctive lamp and a legacy for the children of the school.
Stroer’s proposal was for a clay mural, inspired by “Over in the Ocean: In a Coral Reef,” a book by Marianne Berker, illustrated in polymer clay by Jeanette Canyon. Stroer frequently ties art lessons to literature and this was a natural fit, since the school is located in Ponte Vedra Beach, just across the highway from the Atlantic Ocean. By designing a mural made of clay pieces, Stroer could have different grade levels create various components of the mural, to be assembled at a later date. With Furness’ wholehearted support, the project began in Sept. 2013.
The school’s mascot is the sea turtle, so it became the focus of the mural. After Stroer drew the turtle and segmenting it into workable pieces, the students in her art and mural clubs rolled out the clay and cut the pieces. Because of the time and number of pieces required, all the regular art classes joined in the manufacturing process. The fifth grade students began making fish, soon to be followed by other grade levels making crabs, octopuses, manta rays, sea horses, coral, sea plants, mermaids and just about anything aquatic, real or imagined. The teachers and adult staff at the school also got involved, giving everyone ownership of the project.
Even so, the project continued to expand. Stroer knew she would need “filler” items to create the water, sand, and sky elements. Students in all grades made thousands of “swirlies” and “marshmallows,” which were coils of clay and truncated clay cylinders of various sizes, to fill in the mural. Glazing and firing the pieces took an enormous amount of time and required many young hands. Firing the kiln became a daily task for Stroer and her students, who helped place the pieces on kiln shelves for firing and sorted them in boxes after they cooled.
There was little doubt that the project would be successful. Every student in the school, which houses grades three through five, takes art on a regular rotation. What young child doesn’t enjoy working with clay? Rolling it out, squishing it between their palms, pinching, shaping, and adding details to give the aquatic creatures their playful personalities- sometimes it was a challenge getting them to leave class. Although class periods are only 50 minutes on normal days and after school clubs only met once a week for an hour, the project captured the attention of the students, who made the most of every moment. Some students returned from middle school to help on the mural they had begun as fifth graders.
Of course, Stroer’s students had other art instruction as well, learning the Florida Next Generation Sunshine State Standards well enough to achieve over 90% proficiency on the new District art assessment. Stroer gives a lot of credit to Furness.
“I couldn’t have done this without Ms. Furness’ support,“ she said. “Any time I asked for anything, she was there to make sure I had what I needed.”
When asked how many pounds of clay and gallons of glaze, she could not even guess, but a video on the school’s website says they used 50 tubes of industrial strength glue to mount the pieces.
Although this phase of the project culminated with a dedication ceremony in September, it may not be the end.
“We still have lots of pieces left over,” said Stroer, “I’ve had a lot of interest in the lamp, so we may make more of them.” She was referring to a lamp she created using the extra pieces. It has become a conversation piece in the reception area of the school.
If you want to find out more about the project, visit the school website www-pvmkr.stjohns.k12.fl.us/ and watch the video. Or better yet, visit the school during open house and see all four completed murals.