After 36 hours of labor over four days in August, 16 volunteers finished the mural pillar project at College Place Elementary (CPE). These brightly-colored pillars on the north and south sides of the campus will greet students on the first day of school. Seven of these pillars represent Norway, China, Ethiopia, Peru, Mexico, Malaysia and Ukraine, while one greets with the words “Welcome” and “Bienvenidos” near the school’s entrance.
The volunteers also painted four extra pillars near the school office, but those were left blank for a possible future project.
Artist Missy Hancock, whose children attend CPE, sparked the project earlier this year when she saw the traditional clothing that many students and parents wore during the school’s multicultural event. She thought that having murals on the gray, concrete pillars will not only brighten the campus but also show the school’s values on diversity and inclusivity. After receiving an $800 grant from Edmonds Art Festival Foundation, she started the project immediately.
Hancock met graphic artist Veramis Spaziani at Artists Connect in Edmonds, who created digital renderings of what the pillars would look like with the painted designs. “She was asking for volunteers for this project, and I was able to offer my skills as a graphic designer and fine artist,” Spaziani said. “We gathered together to choose which patterns we will work with and from which country. Choosing the first ones was the hardest part. We want all the community to feel represented. And then translating the costumes to a pattern design digitally was challenging since I have to commit to a deadline to have these seven patterns ready before starting the painting phase.”
On the first day of painting, Hancock and Spaziani passed out photocopies of the designs to volunteers who had picked a country to work on. After they cleaned the pillars of debris and stains, each person outlined patterns or objects with a chalk or pencil.
Spaziani, who is originally from Veracrúz, Mexico, said she felt more connected to the project while painting the Mexican pillar. “I’m sure it will also give the same feeling to the children that attend this school and have Mexican heritage,” she said. She also worked on the Malaysian pillar, which made her curious about the history and culture of that country.
Another volunteer, Trish Murphy, who is part of Artists Connect,worked on the Chinese and Ukrainian pillars, where drawing the dragon was the most challenging part. “I have never done a mural before—indoor or outdoors,” she said. “The picture I was provided for China came from an embroidered dragon on a coat. I had to take this narrow ‘coat picture’ and create a 360-degree design [on a four-sided pillar] that would have an interesting focal point on each side and would fit in with the other pillars.”
To create two dragons that face opposite sides, Murphy had to turn the photocopy around and hold it up to the light to sketch. Also, she had a subtle message embedded in the artwork.
“As you enter the schoolyard, the dragon’s face is smaller and younger-looking with a big smile,” she said. “As you leave the area, the dragon’s face is larger with [longer teeth] to represent being an older, wiser dragon with wisdom gained after each day of school. The middle part of the pillar, which faces the sidewalk, shows the claws of the old and young dragon reaching towards each other representing the sharing of the wisdom learned.”
Spaziani had a similar idea when she designed the patterns for the Ukrainian pillar, which not only represent the flag but also a traditional, embroidered shirt called a vyshyvanka.
“I think using the right symbols in this project from national costumes or costumes that represent a region or their country is what brings together this community and makes it more meaningful for CPE,” Spaziani said.
The last “unexpected” art is the huge, red poppy near the blank pillars by the office. Hancock and Spaziani were lifting a box full of paint cans and the box’s bottom broke, spilling a mixture of red and purple paint on the ground. She, Spaziani, and a school janitor sopped up as much paint as they could. After a day of despair, Hancock turned an accident into a work of art on the last day of the project. She got on her knees and painted a huge poppy with leaves and tiny white flowers around it.
“The poppy is a symbol of creativity, based on the common language of flowers,” she said, which is similar to how horticulturist Caleb Leech described the poppy, as “a reminder of the beauty of life amidst the devastation of war.”
Murphy and several volunteers appreciated that Hancock and Spaziani had gathered all the supplies and references so that they could get to work right away.
“I really enjoyed watching the children paint and come up with ideas of their own to add to the pillars,” Murphy said. “Eloise [Hancock’s daughter] came up with the idea of putting a white dot in the dragon’s eyes which really brought it to life. I am very pleased with how the pillars turned out. It was an enjoyable experience. And I’m also glad that it’s done.”
But what about the four blank pillars? Hancock has no plans to paint them yet.
“That was a last-minute decision on my end to paint them instead of leave them,” Hancock explained. “The rest of the pillars I want to be able to paint and put positive words/school phrases and a handful more patterns. It will depend on community support and another grant.”
Hancock also offered thanks to the following volunteers: PTA President Linsi Moy, CPE Family Resource Advocate Carmen Ziranda, CPE teachers Veronica Mun and Jessica Braun, plus Lisa Weber, Carmen Maritza Huanacchiri, Miriam Salazar, Mary Velásquez, Michelle Jacobson, Eloise and Logan Hancock, Jamie Hancock, Rosio Calderón, and Alejandra, Andre and Julie.
— Story and photos by Nick Ng