Fifth-grade artists set their sights on the ceiling

April 06, 1995|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Sun Staff Writer

Bud Thomas has seen a lot of acoustic ceiling tiles in his long career in school building maintenance, but never such masterpieces as Leonor Pisano's at Lisbon Elementary School in western Howard County. Ms. Pisano's ceiling paintings would make Michelangelo proud.

In fact, the 43-year-old art teacher does something of which the Italian Renaissance artist and architect only could have dreamed as he lay on his back four years painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican: She puts the ceiling on a table to paint it.

Mr. Thomas periodically puts up his ladder in Ms. Pisano's room and takes down a tile so that Ms. Pisano's best fifth-grade painters can set about transforming it. In this way, ordinary ceiling tiles become reproductions of the world's masterpieces.

When students get bored and their eyes wander upward, their gazes are likely to settle upon facsimiles of works by Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Diego Rivera -- all done in tempera carefully brushed across the bumps and holes of the 2-by-4-foot tiles.

"I thought it was a terrific idea, something that would change the whole room," said Mr. Thomas, the school's building supervisor.

The ceiling project began in September 1993 as an outgrowth of the Picture Parent Program done in county schools in partnership with the Baltimore Museum of Art. The museum provides information and prints to parent volunteers, who visit the schools to teach children about great artists and their works.

"The first year they were here, I thought: What can I do to reinforce this?" says Ms. Pisano, who has taught art at the school for 11 years. "I thought that if they're staring at the ceilings, why not paint the ceiling tiles?"

At first, Ms. Pisano had Mr. Thomas bring the tiles down -- one at a time, to comply with fire codes -- and then had him replace them after she painted them.

This year, the procedure is the same except that she has handed over the task of painting to fifth-grade members of the school's Art Club.

Jonathan Durant, Matthew Chaconas, Morgan Rodgers and Adam Haughton, all 11 and from Woodbine, have painted all four of this year's tiles.

Each of the eight tiles painted so far has been placed so it is framed by unpainted tiles. At a rate of four tiles a year, the project should keep students busy for at least 12 years, when every other tile would be painted.

The latest reproduction has sparked particular interest among students, Ms. Pisano says. It's a copy of a painting by contemporary avant-garde artist Roy Lichtenstein of a pair of high-top sneakers in black, white and yellow.

"It appeals to all of the kids, because it kind of doesn't make sense," she says. "So it kind of gets into this whole conversation: 'What is art?' "

That age-old question eventually leads to the revelation that the artist wanted to make a statement about the importance people place upon such commercial products as clothing, Ms. Pisano explains.

And even if students aren't captivated by these discussions, they are held captive to exposure to great paintings. "If they don't remember any other paintings," Ms. Pisano says, "the ones on the ceilings they will -- they'll be looking at them for years."

"Besides," says fifth-grader Morgan with a grin, "if they don't like the paintings, they can always focus their attention back on the teacher."

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