Art teacher Kelsey LaPorte studied the blank, white walls of the art room. The thought had crossed her mind years before, but everything was still so new then. The walls of the art room were young like the school, and the students were just beginning to become familiar with each other and her; still in the process finding themselves artistically. Now, however, things had changed.
The students that once were just getting started, were now in AP Drawing IV. They had grown into a strong, promising group of AP art students, completely comfortable within the walls of their art room, and growingly more comfortable with each other as well. It was the perfect time, LaPorte decided, to let her students, who had been with her since day one, experiment freely with the techniques and skills they had gained over the years, and add some much-needed color and creativity to the art room’s empty walls. It was time to paint murals.
“They are the kind of students that love being in the art room,” LaPorte said. “And have been here since we opened up the school.”
LaPorte and the students brainstormed numerous different topics, ideas and possible themes to depict on the walls, but after listening to all the ideas and suggestions, it was clear what the students most desired was the opportunity for self-expression.
“I think students really just wanted to have freedom,” LaPorte said. “A lot of times in the beginning courses, you don’t get a lot of that freedom, but they’re at that upper level now where they just want to express themselves.”
Thus, each student in Mrs. LaPorte’s Drawing IV was given the freedom to pick any place on the art room walls and let their imagination come to life. As they did so, it was the first time many of them ditched their pencils for paint brushes.
“We used acrylic paint,” LaPorte said. “So just basic everyday paint, nothing special. Honestly it’s pretty cheap stuff, but it’s really about how well you are with your skill and technique. You can take something as cheap as dollar paint from Walmart and make it look really, really well done.”
After contemplating and planning for some time, the students had each come up with individual designs, small pieces of themselves, unique and personal to them, that, when finished, will hang on the walls of the art long after the students are gone.
Junior Lana Young isn’t new to the world of art, or even the world of murals. Long before taking four consecutive art classes at West, she was involved in an art club at her previous school, in which she had her first experiences with mural painting. Young’s decisions over the years to be so artistically active and include plenty of art classes in her schedule are a reflection of how art stands out to her as opposed to other subjects.
“I like that there’s not really a right and wrong,” Young said. “You just kind of do your own thing.”
Young, who participated in a group mural in her previous school’s art club, was able to use that experience this year in LaPorte’s Drawing IV, as she was given the opportunity to tackle her first mural on her own.
“It was really just kind of a lot to figure out what I was going to do,” Young said. “I like that she gave us the freedom to do whatever we wanted.”
With that freedom, Young chose to paint a vibrant, orange octopus with paint brushes folded in its tentacles. From the minute the opportunity was given to her, she knew that her mural would be some kind of animal, but it was the octopus’ symbolic similarity to her medium that caused her to choose it above the others.
“It’s fluid like paint,” Young said.
The large octopus, taking up a good portion of the wall, is a new form of challenge for drawing students like Young who are used to drawing on much smaller scales. Young says the secret to meeting this challenge is constantly stepping back, off of the stool, to look at the whole image in its entirety, before picking up the brush to begin painting again.
Cole Behrman and Andy Pham
When juniors Andy Pham and Cole Behrman heard they would be painting a mural in their drawing IV class, they were both a little surprised and very excited.
“I asked Andy if he wanted to do it with me because I knew it would take a while,” Behrman said. “I think we’re like 20 hours in.”
The mural, still far from finished, is a combination of both Behrman and Pham’s ideas, as well as a collage of nearly every popular video game one can think of.
“We have a Minecraft area, and a Sonic area, and each area has different video games,” Behrman said, “like the Battle Bus, [and] Among Us characters. There’s a Mario over there…There’s also Plants vs. Zombies.”
The boys chose to bring their ideas to life on a thin, horizontal, stretch of wall, under some cabinets in the art room, in order to make the finished work resemble a level of a video game. The shape of the location fit perfectly for the look the two were going for, but not without adding a whole new set of challenges.
“[The hardest part] for us is probably the position,” Pham said. “We have to literally put our heads under the cabinets, and you have got to paint in weird positions. I was even laying on the table sideways to paint.”
Location aside, the boys are determined to make the finished work look perfect, and are motivated by the fact that it will remain on the walls of that very art room for years to come.
“I want everything to look perfect,” Berhman said. “Since everything is permanent, I want it to look seamless. Whenever I come back, it would be cool if it’s still here and I can look at it and show people.”
The permanence of the mural concept is something that has sunk in a little differently to each student individually. For Pham, his contribution to the mural is bigger than just an obligatory project in an art class; It’s a permanent expression of himself that its legacy will carry on long after he has graduated.
“I’m just happy I made a mark actually,” Pham said. “Because I don’t really participate in a lot of things that make me a part of this school, a part of Olathe West you know, but this could probably be it right here. This is the most I’ve done for it.”
Senior Deanna Birnbaum went on a trip to Japan during spring break her sophomore year. Two years later, Birnbaum still carries with her the inspiration from the mountains, culture and different landscapes that she encountered in Japan. In fact, when LaPorte mentioned the idea of painting murals, it wasn’t hard at all for Birnbaum to decide she wanted to turn the wall above the door into a colorful Japanese landscape.
“I kind of had an idea based on the location I was going to paint,” Birnbaum said. “I had to imagine what would look nice above the door. I’m basically painting a landscape. Here’s a river with some coy fish and a mountain.”
While Japan has inspired some of her other art as well in the past, drawing student Birnbaum usually sticks to the pencils. Much like a lot of students in the drawing class, this large-scale mural is one of the few experiences she has had actually painting.
“I like drawing,” Birnbaum said. “I always thought I would be bad at painting, but now that I’ve actually painted on the wall, it’s actually really fun.”
Birnbaum continues to experiment with the acrylics and lets the inspirations of the places she has been inspire her in finishing the mural.
“Mixing all the colors, it’s a blast,” Birnbaum said. “And it takes a lot of hard work.”
Junior Kaleb Vazquez is not used to using acrylics. In fact, the mural project is his first attempt at painting anything at all. Be that as it may, one look at his hands as he paints the mural and it’s clear he is an artist.
“I just did it in class,” Vazquez said about his hand covered in doodles of everything from eyes to roses. “I like to draw like every day.”
There are several similarities in style that both the doodles on Vazquez’s hands and his mural have in common, one of them being the drip effect.
“I just kind of looked at this and it was a blank wall, and I was like it would be really cool if we had some raindrops, or like some characters below it,” Vazquez said. “So I chose these two characters and I’m planning on having some drip effect, like it’s raining.”
The characters Vazquez chose are from the Japanese film My Neighbor Totoro, the inspiration behind his mural because of its appealing colors and style.
“It’s kind of like my favorite movie from the studio. It’s really pretty and has a lot of pretty colors and everything,” Vazquez said. “I just remembered this rain scene that they had, and so I just kind of took inspiration from that and put it on the wall.”
Vazquez believes finishing the mural will take him the rest of the year, however if he does finish with extra time on his hands he plans to complete his artistic vision by adding grass and plants along the base of the wall.
Junior Lucy Verhulst is adding an artistic spin on the common, light-pink jellyfish.
“I just wanted it to be more vibrant and have more contrast, bright to darker,” Verhulst said about her mural that will feature two colorful overlapping jellyfish. “I wanted it to be pleasing to look at.”
Her desire for the end result to be pleasing to the eye, isn’t for her eye alone, but for the eyes that will absorb it in the future as well.
“I’m scared,” she laughed. “It’s just the fact that it’s going to be here, and this is my thing for the school. It’s like ‘woah.’ I’m not going to be here for a long time, and I want other people to like looking at it [too].”
Still, the pressure of leaving a permanent legacy didn’t make the decision of what to paint all that difficult for Verhulst. She knew almost right away that she wanted to paint jellyfish.
“I just like jellyfish man,” Verhulst said. “They’re chill you know, like don’t get too close.”
While living in Kansas has limited Verhulst’s access to ocean life such as jellyfish, she has always loved visiting the ocean. Now, through her art, she gets to bring some of the ocean to life, in Kansas.
Whether it’s through drawing or painting, junior Rose Coffman has always been known to create landscapes. She sometimes dabbles with things like painting animals, but generally landscapes have always been her forte. It seemed obvious, even to LaPorte, that Coffman’s mural would be some form of nature scene, but this time Coffman went a step further with her vision to try something a little more out of the box.
“I thought that it would be cool to make it seem like a backdrop is behind the wall,” Coffman said. “It’s like a nature scene is coming out of the wall, and the wallpaper is like peeling down.”
With just a few more finishing touches her vision will be complete, making Coffman one of the only students who’s mural is nearly done.
“I’m going to add a bit more texture to the right side with the rock,” Coffman said, “and add a top layer to make it look like it’s more bubbled out, to add more dimension to it.”
Once she adds these additions, she hopes her mural will continue to inspire creativity in future students.
“I can look back on it,” Coffman said. “And it’s something that other people can be inspired by.”
Watching the murals come to life as the students grow in their technique has no doubt been an exciting experience for LaPorte, as a teacher, but there’s another aspect of what their years together have done that has been equally exciting for her to watch.
“I think the best part about it all,” LaPorte said, “[is] watching them feel so comfortable in the class, and work together. It’s just so relaxed in here. We come in here and everybody is just so invested in their murals and in art, and they can joke around with each other. It’s very very comfortable.”
While this class is the first, they will certainly not be the last. LaPorte plans to continue this tradition until almost all of the walls are completely covered in bright, overlapping murals, that have been both signed and dated by each student. This year, these Drawing IV students were able to be the very beginning of something much bigger.
“Hopefully,” Laporte said, “It just becomes a collection of all the great artists that came through Olathe West.”