My Experience as a Visiting Artist in Belchertown
For 6 weeks this past winter, I had the pleasure of working as a visiting artist at Belchertown High School with 3 art classes (a total of 34 students) to design and create a mosaic mural for the town library. The students were a mix of grades 9-12, students of Lori St. Pierre. Lori and I wrote a grant together to the Massachusetts Cultural Council to fund the project.
For many of the students, this was their first awareness of mosaics, though some had seen mosaics in parks or in airports before. We talked about how mosaic art can teach us about a culture. Each student made his or her own mini mosaic- a 4” x 4” work that they got to keep, that also served as a way to practice working in the medium- cutting glass, learning about the way shapes fit together, and the technical aspects of how it all gets attached and grouted. Here are just a few of the wonderfully creative pieces they made:
Then, together as a class, we made lists of ideas of what is special about Belchertown. For some students, this was a challenging exercise, and I can appreciate how hard it is to recognize the uniqueness of where you’re from if you haven’t yet lived in other places! But we came up with lots of subject matter, and the students spent a few days sketching out their ideas. Here are just some of the sketches they made:
Then I worked in my studio, using the students sketches to compose a scene depicting Belchertown. For me, this was the hardest part of the whole project, figuring out how to include a representation of every category of items the students had drawn. I decided to feature the landscape, the Quabbin Reservoir and Swift River, wild animals, farm animals, an apple tree, a maple tree with taps, a ferris wheel to represent the Belchertown Fair, a soccer player and band member, and of course, the Clapp Memorial Library– which was to become the destination of the mural. I had design input from Lori, as well as my mother, Cathy Kenneally, who is somewhat of a legend in the Belchertown schools, having been the elementary art teacher for 20 years. She retired last June.
After February break, I returned to school with a full size color rendering of the design (3’ x 4’) and students got to work making the mosaic.
One at a time, as the sections were completed, we assembled them onto a “master” and students began to work on the background areas. It was a wonderful example of teamwork, compromise and collaboration.
When the whole mural was completed, I did the job of attaching it to a lightweight board, called WEDI board, through a series of flipping sections, spreading mortar to the right thickness, and then assembling a team (including Lori, my mother and one of the school custodians) to help flip the whole thing back over, because by that point it was heavy!
On the last day, we grouted the mosaic:
The installation at the library happened one evening after closing. Greg, the library custodian lent his assistance and my husband Bill was there to help (as he often is when I’m doing an installation). The frame, which was made of steel, by my friend Pat Bennet, was bolted to the wall, and the mosaic secured to the frame with a cleat system. In this way, if they ever need to take it down, it will be easy to do so.
Finally, on April 6, it was time to have our celebration of the mural. We had covered it with paper, to allow for a dramatic unveiling and many of the students and their families attended the event, along with many members of the community- the school board, library trustees and even a photographer from masslive.com. A local baker decorated a big sheet cake to look like the mural, which was so awesome!
I could not be more pleased with this experience, and with the outcome. Belchertown now has a piece of public art to be proud of, and the students who made it will be able to come back year after year, eventually bringing their own children to see the work they participated in. I am so grateful to all who made this possible, especially Lori St Pierre, Sheila McCormick, the Library Director, and to the Massachusetts Cultural Council.