HUNDREDS OF AREA STUDENTS HAVE A HAND IN NEIGHBORHOOD MURAL

This story originally appeared in the Deering Squirrel.

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Simon Williams has been staring at the wall and dreaming. A Portland native, the young Ocean Avenue Elementary School art teacher has had his eyes on the long brick expanse of Rosemont Market’s Brighton Avenue store for years. Williams dreamed of a community project that would engage local students, enrich the neighborhood he grew up in, and call attention to Portland public school art programs. This June, his dream became one of the most uniquely collaborative public art installations in the city.

Seven colorful, whimsical painted panels in elegant, handcrafted steel frames hang on the Colonial Street-side wall of the neighborhood’s landmark market. The panels are visible to passing traffic at this busy intersection, but their true wonder is best appreciated standing in front of them and delighting in the discovery that these large pictures are composed mosaic-style, with hundreds of painted wood tiles each created by a different child’s hand.

Two years ago, Williams approached Rosemont Market co-owners John Naylor and Scott Anderson about creating a mural for the store’s wall. With their enthusiastic go-ahead, he began to rally art teachers from area elementary and high schools. Rosemont’s marketing and outreach director, Molly Thompson, a former teacher herself, worked with Williams over the two-year span to guide the mural’s process. “In keeping with Rosemont Market’s mission to educate consumers about the health, economic and social benefits of purchasing local foods, we decided the mural should cultivate an awareness of Portland’s rich agrarian history,” Thompson explained. Recognizing that the project could serve as a model for future community public art with even wider involvement from the city’s teachers and students, Williams designed a replicable process in collaboration with a Mural Team of teachers and community volunteers.

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Deering High School senior Avery Donovan holding her original design with Lia B., age 10 of Hall Elementary School who painted one of the tiles in the mural. Photo by Pat Shiels

In the Fall of 2015, Deering High School art teachers asked students in grades 9-12 to submit artwork inspired by the theme Good Food From Where I Live for consideration by the Mural Team. “Our students were really excited about making a connection with other students at other schools, and about using their work as inspiration to learn painting techniques and a very traditional mural process,” said Deering High School art teacher Audrey Rolfe. “It was a wonderful learning experience, and for students to see their joint efforts come together in a piece displayed for the community was really a nice reward.” One of the panel designs is by Deering High School senior Avery Donovan, who responded to the theme with a scene from the farmers’ market. “With the theme, my mind immediately went to the farmers’ market, because I go there with my family a lot in the summer,” Donovan said. “I thought of Monument Square because it has the Civil War monument in the middle, so people would know that the picture was of Portland. I hope when people see my design they think about the farmers’ market and all the great local food.”

Seven final artwork designs were selected, and in early 2016 submissions were distributed among art teachers in several Portland elementary schools, where elementary school students replicated the high school students’ designs by painting on individual square tiles. In May, hundreds of tiles designed and painted by over 200 area students were assembled by teachers and mounted on large sheets of plywood. The panels were set in handcrafted steel frames and installed on the wall by local sculptor Nelson Bruns assisted by Rosemont employee Carey Anderson.

“I think this is the best example of a local business working with the schools to create something that the students can be proud of, and displaying the talents of our students to the community,” remarked Portland City Council member Ed Suslovic at a celebration for the mural project with participating artists, teachers and neighbors on June 12. “You look at art like this and you can’t help but smile.” Rosemont co-owner John Naylor agrees. “We love that people in the neighborhood view their market as a place to connect—not just connect to the food they are providing for their family, but with their friends and neighbors.”

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Nelson Bruns, Molly Thompson, Simon Williams and Betsy Nelson, photo by Pat Shiels

Mural Project Contributors and Supporters
In addition to the students, teachers and members of the mural committee, the following businesses and individuals donated materials or their skills:
Rufus Deering Lumber
Artist and Craftsman
Nelson Bruns, sculptor
Betsy Nelson, graphic designer
Tess O’Brien, muralist
Laura Newman, Portland Trails School Ground Greening

Participating Schools
Ocean Avenue Elementary: Sally Mitchell and Simon Williams, teachers
Deering High School: Kat Robertson and Audrey Rolfe, teachers
Lyseth Elementary School: Ellen Handelman, teacher
Riverton Elementary School: Chad Hart, teacher
Longfellow Elementary School: Emily Serway, teacher