Mural for Public School 217

Sylvia Benitez


In 1993 I answered a Sites open call with a proposal to create a multicultural mural for Public School 217 in Brooklyn. The location would be in a foyer outside the school auditorium on a serpentine area 3' high and running frieze-like for 100' along seven walls above the existing wood panelling and doors. The mural would be a collaborative work between the children of PS 217 and myself.

During the next year I conducted a series of workshops about art from the seven continents of the world in which the students produced projects that we could select and arrange as models for the mural. I had been collaborating with students on murals for ten years, but this was the most extended time with a single group. I also worked closely with the school's art teacher Sydelle Ganzl, and the children's home room teacher, Betty Sher.

Established in 1991, the Sites for Students Program /Public Arts for Public Schools is the brainchild of Michele Cohen. She saw a great opportunity to create a new program where money allocated for permanent art commissions under the Percent for Art program could also be used to augment art education in the school system. Her idea was to combine the creative energies of children with recognized artists in collaborated public art works.

Through this program children are exposed to various creative procedures. In it they contribute their ideas, drawings and work toward the creation of permanent public art in their school. The students gain a sense of involvment and authorship and the larger community accepts the new art as one of their own. With 27 projects finished or under construction, this symbiotic relationship established between Artist, Percent for Art, the New York Public School System and the local communities has proved to be a vital opportunity for all.

After discussing the possibilites, it was decided that acrylic paint would be the natural choice of media within the budget for the P.S. 217 mural. Our painting conservator, Luco Bonetti, suggested Feather Board as the base. It is durable, easy to work with, and has the stability of old masters' wood boards cut on the middle grain.

The following paragraphs are a brief synopsis of my workshops held at PS 217 and are in chronological order according to completion. From the results of the workshops we selected and arranged the content and composition of the mural, and I made a scaled cartoon which is in this exhibition. After compiling the needed images, the students could bring their projects home. The final painting is underway and will be installed when construction activities in the space are concluded.

Africa was the first continent I addressed with the class. We held a two part workshop plus a field trip to the Rockefeller Collection at the Met. Sydelle Ganzl's forte is African art. She gave a brief walk through the Met with an explanation of different African art works. Afterwards,the students drew directly from an artifact of their choice. This drawing was later reinterpreted as a formal mixed media collage with special attention given to recreating the textural quality of the original. Students learned art techniques: dry brush, collage, mixed media and enlargement.

In the second part, students were exposed to traditional textile prints. Using cut up sponges mirroring the shapes we observed in an original textile, we made our own printed fabric. These cloths were used as a color back drop behind their drawings in the overall design of the permanent mural.

P.S. 217 has a 25% Pakestani/Indian student population so a workshop based on this region would be very appropriate. At this time, The Brooklyn Museum was hosting a Persian./Hindu/Jain miniatures exhibition. With the help of their catalog and Jenni Rodda curator of the visual resouces collections of the Institute of Fine Arts I was able to expose my students to this wonderful work. Each student made a small Indian miniature style paper work using Caran D'ache crayons on Reeves BFK. The objective was to create a background only. After this was completed the students made cut out cardboard movable puppets that were attached to the miniatures with tooth picks. The relief puppets were then lined up to create a running frieze on the myriad background interpretations the children had made from the miniature paintings.

The third workshop was based on Native American Mogollon Pueblo Pottery and Navaho Design. Part of the workshop involved a field trip to the new Native American Indian Museum at Bowling Green. My students did more direct drawings of the exhibited artifacts. For this workshop though, I wanted to involve them in a sculptural experience. We made interpretations of pueblo pottery using plaster of paris ribbons and punching balloon molds. The white bowls were painted with a terra cotta acrylic paint color. Each child selected a traditional design and recreated the bowl. This and the Australian boomerangs were among the most popular trophies to bring home.

With the help again of Jenni Rodda and The Institute of Fine Arts, I was able to expose my students via slide presentation to the beautiful tapestries woven in Medieval Europe. My intention was to give my students a mini mural experience in the following weeks. I wanted them to understand the process I usually employ in my mural workshops. To do this the students drew directly from projected slides of the Unicorn Tapestries, millefluer, wild beasts, unicorns etc. This is how we collected imagery for our wall. The students then voted on the best drawn Unicorn for the tapestry. The other drawings of flowers were transferred to acetate paper, flipped onto an over head projector and projected on to boards that the students had primed. To create an authentic feel we used only the colors viewed in the original work and painted the woven pattern by using repeated painting strokes in short sequences.

The Australia workshop combined Australian Dreaming iconography with an introduction to color gradation. This was achieved using a double sided boomerang carved from homosote. To teach the children about gradation I created a blind game. Each child numbered his or her boomerang 1-14. and was given a one color gradient that corresponded to one of the numbers. The children filled in their blanks with the appropriate numbered paint and watched the effect of color moving from light to dark. They watched the gradient pattern develop. The students looked at Australian Dreaming paintings, ground and mixed raw pigment, ocher, and other earth tones, and created their own pattern using cue tips to recreate the stippling effect. The design for the wall was developed by repeating and alternating the boomerang in a flip flop pattern to create a feeling of motion/ waves.

Our good fortune that year was that the Japan Society was having a special exhibition entitled Ningyo Dolls, A wonderful exhibition that my students loved and related to. In the classroom using donated wood scraps from Sids Hardware, Brooklyn, the students learned to make armatures. These frames supported fabric they selected and draped to become kimonos. For heads and hair we stretched our imaginations and used Sydelle Ganzl's idea of putting a Styrofoam ball into a black stocking. The dolls that we made were photographed. The dolls once reduced into two dimensions were used to eventually create the mural cartoon.

The last section of wall was South America . We made Panamanian molas. Molas are cloth patterns of birds and fish etc that are stitched into layers. These layers have windows cut into them. These windows allow the onlooker to observe the underlying cloth. Numerous layers are usually employed with equally numerous windows. The impact is a saturated busy design of patterned color. It was spring, the mola lesson turned out to be a wonderful present to the children who had worked so hard. I was amazed at how much they enjoyed cutting out simple patterns of birds, cats dogs and tucans. They stitched these together with large embroidery needles and Woolworth yarn. There was a quiet in the room. It was clear that they liked this. They had returned to being children . It had never occurred to me that they were under pressure themselves to do a good job for the mural. They knew that they had.

I would like to thank PS 217 and Mary Teatum, the school principal, for giving me the opportunity to workshop with her children. Michele Cohen for her wonderful vision and support, Betty Sher, my students gifted and talented homeroom teacher, and especially Sydel Ganzl who shared her students, her wisdom, her talent and her love.