My ‘kind’ of book: Student murals brighten building, lighten atmosphere

Date Published: 
February 14, 2014

Coastal Point • Laura Walter: This bookshelf mural lines the halls of Georgetown Middle School, where 800 students created one cohesive design that discourages bullying and celebrates kindness. Selbyville Middle School also premiered their own finished prCoastal Point • Laura Walter: This bookshelf mural lines the halls of Georgetown Middle School, where 800 students created one cohesive design that discourages bullying and celebrates kindness. Selbyville Middle School also premiered their own finished prStudents live and grow in school hallways, so that’s where Selbyville and Georgetown middle schools have brought an important social message — as told by the students themselves.

Every child, and many staff members, painted a mural that that encourages positive behavior and stands up against bullying. They brightened the halls with help from the Joshua M. Freeman Foundation and artist John Donato.

“Every time someone walks the halls of the school, they will know what this school stands for,” said Patti Grimes, executive director of the Freeman Foundation.

How do 700 people make a meaningful contribution to a mural? Everyone painted an individual block — a book spine, in fact. Donato has a style of painting murals to look like bookshelves, which perfectly fit such a universal project. The paintings are hung throughout both schools.

“This is quite an accomplishment. There are stories in every one of these books,” Donato said. “Look deep. There is a lot of meaning, and that’s not anything we told them.”

Georgetown Middle School’s Johnny Perez-Gonzalez, an eighth-grader, liked that students could express their own feelings to “welcome new students and cheer others up.”

He wrote in Spanish, “Don’t be scared. … Think positive thoughts.” to make others feel “welcome and happy.”

“It shows the kindness, compassion and love we all have for one another,” said Gabby Gui, a seventh-grader, who painted ripples in a pond. “Everything we do goes out like a ripple into the world,” she said. The murals “remind me to keep kindness in my heart.”

Students actually had a stake in this project, which differs so wildly from standard anti-bullying lectures. And Donato hopes the art still makes an impression when students return to visit in 10 years.

“Those ripples come back in a wave to you,” he said.

SMS seventh-grader Logan Krick and his father smiled to see his painting, “Hit a homerun for being selfless.”

“It’s pretty cool seeing it up here, because usually kids don’t get to do something that’s permanent,” Krick said.

Future students and even younger siblings of the artists will be able see these murals for years to come.

“This legacy will last a lifetime,” said Grimes.

Through the mural, hundreds of voices are encouraging kids to be positive, instead of sitting back and witnessing bullying.

“Imagine bullying trying to take place behind you. It can’t with all this behind them,” said Donato, gesturing to the wall. “When I look at this mural tonight … every message is so concise, so clear, and there’s meaning behind every one.”

Inspiration shone through the design of SMS’s Mia Truitt, an eighth-grader.

“The light bulb that shows I’m motivating people for ideas. The sunlight is like being selfless, because you’re shining your nice light,” Truitt said. She even painted the word “muse,” which “ties in with idea of giving someone else ideas.”

She stayed for extra class time to paint, but most students only had 30 to 55 minutes. Every moment counted.

Volunteers, among them Homer Coates, helped by washing countless paintbrushes. At Selbyville, Coates heard many students bemoan their lack of artistic skills but then turn around and create amazing art. “What these kids have done is absolutely incredible.”

Elizabeth Dill painted two hands, one reaching to lift the other upward. She also wrote, “Act without expectation,” attributed to philosopher Lao-tzu.

Bianca Broughton was inspired by a documentary to write, “Shine bright like a diamond.”

“One act of kindness is shining bright like a diamond,” she said, especially because kindness fits with being “Selfless, Motivated and Successful.”

Emily Tharby drew a goldfish in a light bulb, encouraging people to break out of their shells. “Break out. Be free,” she wrote.

Other messages included: “Be friendly and you will find friendship,” “Stand tall no matter what people say,” “Be somebody’s angel” and “Un mundo/todos unidos” (“one world/all united”).

SMS Principal Mike King was incredibly proud of the students at the big Feb. 10 reveal.

“When students are allowed to create, when you look at some of those things they do,” the possibilities seem endless, said King. “They never cease to amaze me.”

Fire drills, fog delays and snow cancelations couldn’t stop the nonprofit Freeman Foundation from continuing to support art in education and community (in part through the Freeman Stage at Bayside).

“As one of the few arts organizations in the area, we wanted to find a way to impact and inspire Sussex County students in an immediate way, while providing visual stimulation for future students in the years to come,” said Grimes.

Donato led the students in painting, saying this type of project is much more satisfying than working alone. He is creative educator and collaborative muralist for Lead Your Way Solutions, a local consulting firm that specializes in leadership training and organizational development.