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Directed Outdoor Murals on Schools

Originally appears in the Summer 2011 issue

Who would have imagined that your students could all be great artists, completing a 4’ x 24’ “eco-mural” designed by a professional artist in as little as five days? Who would have thought that such a project could be undertaken with the involvement of pre-school, kindergarten, autistic, and behaviourally-challenged children?

Ontario artist Nicole Belanger has devised a “directed mural” approach to help elementary schools plan a successful mural painting project. The project has achieved spectacular results with young painters of all ages and abilities, but it requires a lot of preparation beforehand and during the activity to make sure the project is a success.

In Belanger’s approach, a professional artist designs and sketches the outline of the mural on the first day, and groups of children and parent volunteers paint in the details over the next four days. Some have criticized this “directed” approach because they feel it limits students’ freedom of expression. However, without direction, murals usually become a hodgepodge of peace symbols, happy faces, slogans and hand prints. In fact, murals where students are given free rein tend to look very similar. Painting a directed mural is certainly no less enjoyable for the children, and in the process they learn a few painting techniques and observational skills, as well as the value of community cooperation and respect for fellow students’ work (you don’t paint over it!).

If the mural is intended to enhance a school grounds greening initiative, its subject matter can be largely determined by the lead artist, but specifics should be chosen through consultation with the school. For example, schools may want to draw attention to local ecological priorities such as species at risk, or focus on aspects of their projects such as butterflies, the four seasons, pollinators, vegetable gardens or composting. The topic, roughly sketched out beforehand, provides focus, and a short lesson on applying paint and choosing the right brush for the job gives children the basics to get started.

The following details will help schools prepare for and paint a directed mural:

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Ann Coffey lives in Ottawa, Ontario, where she has been a school grounds greening designer and practitioner for 22 years. Currently an associate with Evergreen, she has enjoyed working with Nicole to create 10 murals in Ottawa schoolyards.