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Every Student Helped Create This Work of Art


Artist Cara O’Brien stood near a group of third-graders wearing rubber gloves and showed them their next task on the enormous mural in front of them.

“Use your fingertips just like that,” she said as she demonstrated pushing globs of grey grout between tiles the students made this year.

“This is much better than painting,” said student Joclynn Burholder. “I like to get messy.”

Third-grader Taychaun Donald works to clean grout from mural tiles
Third-grader Taychaun Donald works to clean grout from mural tiles

The nearly finished mural in the main hallway of Cherry Creek Elementary reflects months of work between the entire student body and O’Brien as part of the school’s first artist-in-residence program.

The 12-foot-by-5-foot piece, which O’Brien estimates contains nearly 1,000 tiles and glass pieces, has been in the works since fall, when students came up with potential designs in art class, then drew up plans. O’Brien joined them in January to start work on creating the tiles.

“They’re learning a lot,” O’Brien said earlier this school year, as students worked to affix the tiles with mastic to backing board before sections of the mural were affixed to the entryway wall.

♥”It’s interesting for me, too, to see how they’ve approached working with clay, especially the texture tools. I’ve worked with these tools for years and some of the ways I have seen them use them is like, ‘Hey, that’s a new one on me.'”

Third-graders caught smiling mid-grout are, from front to back, Joclynn Burholder, Ava Peterson, Izzy Field and Jaqlin Kraft
Third-graders caught smiling mid-grout are, from front to back, Joclynn Burholder, Ava Peterson, Izzy Field and Jaqlin Kraft

Community Coming Together

O’Brien is no stranger to Cherry Creek. Students worked with her at last year’s ArtPrize and made their own clay pieces, which were placed around O’Brien’s entry. The students’ part of that sculpture is now displayed across the hallway from the mural.

Art teacher Dawn Price was awarded a $10,408 grant last fall from the Michigan Council for Arts & Cultural Affairs to fund the school’s first-time artist-in-residence program. Another $3,712 came from the Lowell Education Foundation, and Cherry Creek’s PTO contributed $500.

As part of the effort, students studied murals throughout history and worked with magnetic tile boards. The theme they came up with: “Community coming together and working together in a spirit of cooperation.” All 20 classrooms came up with a proposed design, and the final design was a blend of the top three.

Cherry Creek Principal Shelli Otten said results of the program have gone beyond something beautiful on the wall.

“It has expanded kids’ views of art and helped them realize what they can create,” she said. “And the working together… we’ve got a masterpiece here.”

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Previous SNN article on Lowell students and Cara O’Brien

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering East Grand Rapids, Forest Hills and Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio

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