The impact is immediate: A vibrant, colorful array of tiles arranged into an arching mosaic mural depicting a beautiful spring day filled with blooming flowers, towering trees, and blue skies.
Welcome to Stephen C. Foster Elementary. The charming Dallas school now has its own, handcrafted showpiece to instantly greet students, faculty, and visitors. You can’t miss it; the mural frames the receptionist station right when you walk through the front doors.
“The mural is the pride and joy for the students that created it,” says Lauren Patton, art teacher at Foster Elementary. “All of my art club kids would stay after school to work on it. They are the ones that did the majority of the work. They stayed for 90 minutes each day for two months. They have a personal connection with this mural. They will point to certain pieces that they had their hands on.”
The mural took a year to complete, from its sketchy conceptual beginnings in Patton’s head all the way to the final grouting. The official unveiling was in March. Initially Patton thought of working on a painting, but she quickly switched to a tile mosaic piece. She enlisted the help of kids, many kids, who relished the artistic task of breaking tiles, forming images and pasting them on the wall.
Patton taught the kids the mosaic concept, the general gist of creating art with bright tiles. But it was the collaboration between Patton and Artreach-Dallas, Inc. that brought the mural to life. And it was Patton’s connection to Big Thought’s Learning Partners program that originally lit the match.
“They made it happen,” says Patton, who is Foster Elementary’s Learning Partners coordinator. “It wouldn’t have happened without the voucher and the catalog of vendors. That’s where I found Artreach, and they had a mural residency. People have no idea that the money could be used for a residency. It changed our school permanently instead of just being a one-time thing like a field trip.”
Patton used Foster Elementary’s $1,600 Learning Partners allocation toward the final $3,300 mural price tag. The school raised $1,000 through a GoFundMe campaign, and the remaining $700 came from grassroots school fundraising.
All Dallas ISD elementary schools have an allocation of funds that can be used to peruse the Learning Partners vendor catalog and choose the activity, trip, or educational experience that best suits their respective students. Patton was savvy and thoughtful. She found a way to motivate the entire school to rally around a project that everybody would enjoy, a project that would energize students, faculty and staff.
Big Thought’s Learning Partners began as Dallas Arts Partners in 1997 as an effort to provide children with greater opportunities to explore creativity. Learning Partners, the name adopted in 2015, aims to introduce kids to more real-world, hands-on experiences outside of the traditional classroom. By exposing kids to the arts, humanities and sciences you not only close the opportunity gap that disproportionately affects under-resourced students, but you also teach kids skills and critical thinking that can be applied to many facets of education and life.
“This tapped into a whole skill set that these children had that we had no idea they had,” says Delauren Kruzel, counselor at Foster Elementary. Kruzel came up with the idea to put the mural close to the front doors. “The staff got to see a different side of the kids. We saw some kids come out of their shells. It gave their teachers a new avenue in the classrooms. Kids worked together that normally can’t stand each other. There is purpose in this mural, there is ownership.”
For Jolette Campos and Michelle Guerrero, both 5th graders, there is also pride. They were instrumental in constructing that mural, and their smiles speak volumes.
“It let me be creative,” says Jolette. “I had fun putting it together. It was like a puzzle.”
Michelle adds this: “I was excited because we could have fun, but at the same time be creative and do something for our school.”
Those are the gifts that keep on giving. Those are the reasons that Tammy Gore, lead designer and facilitator with Artreach, and Dana Mullen, project director at Artreach, spent more than a year working with Patton and Foster Elementary.
“The students were amazing, patient little artists, but they couldn’t wait to get in there and get down and dirty,” says Gore. “I think their favorite part was swinging that hammer and smashing those tile squares into fragmented pieces. They also loved carefully placing just the right piece in the just the right place. They created that mural with their own hands. Community collaboration is a wonderful thing. These children learned firsthand what it’s like to work on parts, and then take those parts to create a whole.”
The whole is paramount at Foster Elementary. The school is a mini-community, a place where kids can be expressive and work as a team for the betterment of their alma mater and ultimately themselves. The mural is the physical manifestation of that empowerment.
“Everything about that school is about supporting individuals to be the best that they can be,” says Mullen. “You truly rise to your most excellent capacity. They wanted something to make their school reflect how beautiful it really is there. They did that in a way that nothing else really could have. The mosaic is just splendid. It is the complete wow factor. Everything came together to support the power of the experience that the kids were having. It is reciprocal on so many different levels – emotionally, visually, spiritually, intellectually, and psychologically.”
But there’s more. The mural that began with Lauren Patton’s visit to Big Thought’s Learning Partners catalog is about to spread beyond the Foster Elementary doors. There are plans to use the leftover tiles to create a smaller, more contained mural in the school’s garden. Naturally the children will be involved, and naturally the project will continue to spread the joy of art, community and collaboration.
Big Thought thanks its generous Learning Partners donors for their generous support: Dallas Independent School District, City of Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs, Summerfield G. Roberts Foundation, Texas Commission on the Arts – Arts Respond, and The Patrick & Beatrice Haggerty Foundation.