The Power of Painted Passion

By: Kathleen Palmer

 

East Greenwich, RI- Year after year, hundreds of teens pass through East Greenwich High School. The continuity of time at the high school is never changing, but for some students, the reality is. Slowly but surely, just as students work on the ever evolving story of the school as a community, some work on the ever evolving masterpiece of the school itself. With paint, sharpie, and passion, the high school walls have become a canvas for an artistic love of learning.

 

Art is all over the high school. Posters, sample essays, and the occasional strangling Russian flag from last year’s sophomore WWI debate are ways teachers and students regularly work to express themselves about the building. Some is a little more permanent, though. A full sized Elvis Presley portrait in Mr. Petrucci’s room, bright doors in the English wing, quotes on the ceiling of English classrooms, and a full sized wall of color in the health room are, like tattoos, artwork for on the body of the school itself. Half a dozen John Lennon heads hide behind one column; there is a bit of Spain in the language wing. Roman citizens reside in the Latin room, and there are stars under the stairwell. Piece by piece, plain white walls are replaced by vibrant expression.

 

Yet many students do not know where the art comes from, or what it means. When asked what art they remember seeing, many students can name at least one piece. When asked who did it, when, or why, most come up blank. Do they wonder, do they want to know? The answer was almost unanimously “yes.” One student elaborated, commenting that it should be more publicly credited and explained, and asking how he would be able to do wall-art himself.

 

The truth is, the answers are slipping away. The art is old, most from the early 2000s. The likeness of Elvis adorning Robert Petrucci’s classroom was from his predecessor, Mr. Etchells and his love of the King. The roman statues sharpied onto the walls of Benjamin Revkin’s room were from the teacher before him, as well. He can translate their speech bubbles (“It is exceedingly miserable to be an exceedingly beautiful man” for the male figure and “Can you help me? I have an itch on my nose” for the armless woman), but he cannot speak to the students or inspiration. Some teachers, like Petrucci and Timothy Kenney, who inherit art try to preserve or continue it, but some, like the quotes previously on the ceiling of room 217 and most of Revkin’s lady, have been covered up over the years. But as long as the art is there, so is the story.

 

It is about the teachers. Every drop of paint that touches the high school walls is, of course, properly approved and supervised by a teacher or faculty member. Why turn to art? “I think it makes students feel connected,” Kenney says of his quote covered ceiling. “Looking up and seeing all the students who have done this just like them.” For other teachers, it was about the students who started the project. Kristin Pontarelli wanted her students to engage in Spanish culture more. “I asked them what they were passionate about,” she remembers. “They said art.” So she wove their passion and curriculum together into artistic representation of Spanish culture, using the murals to excite students about learning.

 

But it is about teachers in more than just a teaching sense. Students painting the doors in the English wing used the opportunity to engage more with their teachers outside of the classroom. They asked each teacher for their favorite quote, then used their artistic skills to bring the quotes to life for the teacher. Both Kenney and Melissa Fallow say the quotes on their ceiling make them feel connected with their students, reminding them of the dozens of personalities that have passed through their room. Karen Izzo comes to life when discussing the work on her door (no longer hers, as she has since moved to the office for the department head), and the students who did it. “That’s Henry,” she proudly points out. “From a poem they read. They really terribly misunderstood it, but it really stuck with them.” She still has the short story accompanying the picture, still lovingly traces the signatures of the artists.

 

Because it is about the students, too. Practically all of the artwork is student made, most student designed as well. The artwork represents students shaping and changing their learning environment, leaving their mark on the school. Fallow has captured that with her idea of quotes. She was inspired by the Walt Whitman quote “That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” She decided to make that literally for students passing through her class. “My intention was and is to allow my students to leave ‘a verse,’ behind,” she explains, “that adds to the powerful display that’s been assembled over the years.” Looking at her or Kenney’s ceilings, students can read snapshots of their predecessors personalities and experiences. Izzo’s student’s experience with Henry is immortalized for all who enter that room. Students have come to life in their art, and that remains long after their graduation.

 

All of the artistic expression is highly influential for the current students as well. The bright colors and creative images are extremely popular. “It makes the school look cooler,” one student commented. “Like less of a prison. It shows people can express themselves.” It does become normalized, one student commenting that the excitement fades after freshman year. But the normality does not change the subtle influence. Asked how it influenced the environment, one student immediately denied that the art changed anything. After pausing a moment, he admitted with a small smile that it does make the walls more colorful.

 

Ultimately, the ingrained nature of the artwork is actually beneficial. Only Fallow believed it was distracting, though Revkin has covered much of the woman drawn beside his board to reestablish decency after the artist chose a nude model. “It’s a double edged sword,” Revkin feels. “It can seem a bit busy and confusing, but it also makes the room interesting to be in.” Still, both Izzo and Pontarelli used the term “bright” to describe the hallways with art, as did one student. That student commented that the halls without it seemed darker and it affected the school’s atmosphere. The subtle nature of the ever present artwork means it is effective in creating a positive environment, largely without detracting from learning.

 

One thing noticeable in the artwork, though, is its largely decrepit state. As much of it is a decade or more old, its brightness is dimming slightly. Some, like Izzo, believe it simply needs to be maintained. Some students, on the other hand, wish it were renewed and redone, by current students with current memories to make. One emphasized that, while he loves it, it is “outdated.” Either by refreshing or replacement, the consensus is that the artwork needs more modern help.

 

Fading as it may be, though, it is a beloved part of the school. When asked, most students can immediately identify their favorite piece. The mural in the health room is a memorable favorite. One student loves the mural of the Spanish coast in the language wing. “For a moment it feels like you’re there on the Mediterranean” he says. Another loves escaping with the stars painted on ceiling of the staircase by the library.

 

Teachers have favorites as well. Choosing between the doors in the English wing Izzo explaims, “Mine, of course!” Fallow compares choosing between her quotes to choosing between her children. “Some are funny,” she explains. “Josh Fazio wrote ‘Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.’ From Monty Python. Others are more serious – Kasia O’Connor wrote ‘If only I may grow firmer, simpler – quieter, warmer.’ by Days Hammarsskjold.” Kenney was more definite about his favorite, jumping halfway out of his chair to point to writing scrawled above his door. Ben Markstone had written an “anonymous” quote about how the important things are not graded. The quote is actually Kenney’s saying, and he loves that it is up there to keep reiterating something he truly believes.

 

From quotes, to murals, to armless ladies, the walls and of East Greenwich High School has long been a canvas for artistic expression. While it could undeniably use a little freshening up, permanent art in the high school has been a well beloved bearer of cheer for generations of students.

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