Jen James, Assistant to the Head of School and Registrar

JenJames, Assistant to the Head of School; Registrar; Director of Special Projects

Blank Walls Transformed By Student Art, In a BIG! Way

No doubt about it. This week has been dark, drab, and dreary outside our walls. It seems there are only shades of gray on Mother Nature’s palette as we say goodbye to March. Thankfully, inside our walls, we’re surrounded by a growing gallery of the vibrant colors we seek from spring. 

From our school counselor’s office across from the Downing gym to a hallway at 37 Day School Lane to the reading and resource rooms in the Erskine Library, a series of large, colorful paintings have been hung over the past few years. Each of the canvases is unique to the space, designed and painted by seventh and eighth graders in the Painting BIG! arts elective taught by Anne Armstrong, visual arts teacher and arts coordinator.

Ms. Armstrong recalls that this unique arts elective was inspired by another large art project that our students and faculty walk by dozens of times each week–the Big Toy (Big Blue’s playground predecessor) mural in the sixth grade hallway. “That piece not only connects us with our past at BDS, it also livens up a specific space that might otherwise not engage us visually,” Armstrong said. “The Painting BIG! class was designed so that we can showcase student art in a very thoughtful and more permanent way.”

The twist for this unique art class is that the students are challenged to make art for someone else. A call is put out before the class begins to all faculty and staff to see who has a wall or walls they would like filled with new student artwork. (Word is definitely getting out about the class as 30 interested faculty replied this spring!) The students choose which “commission” to pursue and begin working with their “clients.” The process is not linear–there is a lot of back and forth between the students and the clients. The connection and necessary communication between students and the client faculty members is a different type of real-world learning experience. So too, is the ultimate hanging and unveiling of the original artwork for all to see, enjoy, and yes, even critique.

In 2021, when the Painting BIG! class was launched, the Erskine Library had just undergone a significant renovation, adding all new shelving, new carpets, comfy reading nooks, and the middle-school-oriented Ryan Research Room. Librarian Amy Sprung saw some blank spots that needed to be filled to make the newly renovated space even warmer and thus became Painting BIG!’s first client.

The class consulted with Ms. Sprung, heard her ideas about what type of art would work best, and subsequently presented several different ideas. Some of these proposed pieces were representative of books and the joy of reading, but Ms. Sprung wanted something more neutral and timeless for the space. The second round of designs matched her vision and the students started on what would become five large canvasses. The final pieces incorporated ideas and inspiration from each of the students’ proposals and designs, which are bold, colorful, and whimsical.

To say the least, the client was thrilled when the work was hung. “It totally transformed the space and brings me joy every day I walk into work,” Ms. Sprung said.

So on a gray day like today, I recommend taking a quick trip to the library. In the research room, there’s a magical spot where you can see all of the student-created pieces in the library at once. The pieces are in conversation with each other, and with the viewer, delivering colorful inspiration in a very BIG! way.

JenJames, Assistant to the Head of School; Registrar; Director of Special Projects

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