Creating literary compositions

With the aid of a visiting artist, pupils put their favorite authors, books onto canvas


Central Elementary School art teacher Greta Morris' room was in disarray.

"We rearranged chairs, tables, everything," Morris said, as she happily surveyed the scene. "It's been a mess. A fun mess. A good mess."

The occasion was a weeklong visit last week from artist Viki Keating, who was helping the pupils create banners of authors and book scenes that will hang in the school's media center. Some of the banners had been taped to the art room walls so pupils could work on them, while others were lying on tables. Paint and paintbrushes were everywhere, and pupils wearing smocks were hard at work on the banners.

Before Keating arrived, the pupils had spent about two months preparing for her visit, Morris said. First, they voted on the authors they wanted to depict on the banners. At first, it seemed there would be time for only four banners, and the pupils chose Dr. Seuss, J.K. Rowling, Barbara Park (author of the Junie B. Jones series) and C.S. Lewis.

But the project went so smoothly that pupils were able to add four more: Roald Dahl, Kate DiCamillo (Because of Winn-Dixie, The Tale of Despereaux), Maurice Sendak and Chris Van Allsburg (Two Bad Ants).

Pupils then drew their own depictions of scenes from the books, using book covers as inspiration. When Keating came, she took the pupils' ideas and consolidated them into a single drawing for each author. She then sketched the drawings onto large canvas sheets, so the pupils could paint them in.

All last week, pupils in each art class worked on the banners. Morris said she liked knowing that 494 children in grades one through five were involved, including pupils in special education classes.

Pupils weren't assigned to specific murals but she said she guides some children to certain ones based on their abilities. Kobe Chaney, 8, said she had worked on the Junie B. Jones mural as well as James and the Giant Peach. "We switch around," she said. Hannah Schlegel, 9, wanted to work on James and the Giant Peach because, she said, "I like to eat peaches."

Morris said she hopes to continue the project in coming years, now that Keating has taught her how to create the banners. "I'm learning just as much as the kids are," she said. Her goal is to add more banners to the ceiling of the media center each year, she said.

Keating, who lives in nearby Riva, said she often works as a visiting artist in elementary and middle schools. Sometimes, if the school gets a state or county arts grant that allows her to stay for a month, she'll help pupils create a stained-glass masterpiece. For weeklong assignments, like the one at Central, she'll often guide students to create a mural on a school wall.

Morris, though, said she wanted to create banners instead of a mural because she wanted to brighten up the media center. Morris said the school typically brings in an artist every school year, alternating between music and visual arts. She noted that the PTA paid $1,500 for the Keating visit.

By Thursday morning, the Harry Potter and Narnia banners were complete, and third-graders were painting scenes from Where the Wild Things Are and James and the Giant Peach.

Keating was giving third-graders guidance as she helped them add trees to the scene from Where the Wild Things Are. The book was propped up on the chalkboard, so they could look at the cover as they worked. "Now, find yourself a brush that's not too big," she said. "Yes, like that. That's a good size."

She used masking tape to outline the trunk of the tree, then demonstrated how she wanted the pupils to paint before letting the them begin.

Meanwhile, pupils Samie Williams, Nikko Lusby and Liam Buckley were using purple paint to color the ants in a scene from Two Bad Ants.

"It's about these ants that are stealing people's food and stuff," said Nikko, the only one of the three who had read the book.

Liam, who was celebrating his ninth birthday that day, said he had voted for Dr. Seuss. He also said he liked The Chronicles of Narnia, but that was one of the most difficult banners to create.

As the boys talked, they waved their paintbrushes in the air. Keating hurried over.

"Why don't you bend down to paint?" she said, wiping up a glop of purple that had landed on the yellow background. "You have to pay attention to what you're doing."

Morris, meanwhile, seemed thrilled with the way things were going. "I've got the best job in the school," said Morris, who has been at Central Elementary School for six years and has been teaching art for 19 years. "If you look around, we're having a great time."

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