The entryway of Sunset Hill Elementary used to be beige and bare, but it now boasts a colorful and intricate mural. The schoolwide project—with all students contributing to the painting—was designed by a local artist and completed at the end of last school year. More than just a decoration, it also serves as a visual representation and celebration that makes the school unique—especially its love of learning, diversity and strong sense of community.
The new mural was made possible by funding received from the school district for an artist-in-residence. The school’s PTSA stepped in to fund more than half of the cost which allowed for a larger mural and provided the opportunity for all students to participate in the project. Sunset Hill teachers and administrators had been seeking a way to bring the school together, and collaborating on a mural ended up being the perfect fit.
“We really thought it would be cool to add something to contribute to the community here and showcase what the school is like,” says art specialist Jessica Williams. “It’s a very unique and diverse community, and we thought [a mural] would really brighten up the hallway, too.”
Melodee Strong, a Minneapolis-based freelance illustrator and muralist, was selected as the artist-in-residence. Murals, she says, are one of her specialties—more than 30 of her murals now grace the walls of schools, outdoor public spaces, churches and community centers across the Twin Cities. She facilitated the project at Sunset Hill from incorporating students’ ideas into a unified design to teaching students how to paint. She spent upwards of 50 hours working on the mural alone.
At Sunset Hill, the mural process kicked off with a brainstorming session. Strong and Williams met with fourth and fifth graders to discuss what they wanted the mural to look like and what they wanted to see represented within it.
“We really wanted to get to the question ‘What do you want to say about Sunset Hill?’” says Strong. “A lot of kids talked about friendship, learning and creativity, especially arts and music.” Students sketched their ideas, which Strong used to come up with a cohesive design to be transferred to the wall. She also worked with each grade to paint the mural, teaching them various techniques, such as layering and masking, which made for a more enriching experience.
“Real artists paint in layers; we don’t paint by number,” Strong says. “So [the students] learn that that’s how painters paint. I feel that it’s an injustice and a disservice to artists if we don’t teach them as a resident artist what we do.”
The mural spans the front hallways of Sunset Hill’s main entrance. It portrays children engaged in a wide range of activities, from reading to sports to arts to music, and students of all races, genders and abilities are represented as well. Williams says that this sense of inclusiveness was at the heart of the entire project, especially given the diversity of the Sunset Hill community.
“We wanted to be super inclusive of every kind of kid that’s here and represent everyone on the mural,” she says. “We wanted to use it to bring the school together, so with everybody having some ownership of it, it creates more of a community feel.”
Kat Graham, a fifth grader last school year, says she loved being able to work on the mural, especially watching it come together little by little. “It’s been fun to see, like when you walk by to lunch, how each day there’s a little more added to it,” she says, also pointing out the rainbow she worked on. “It represents what our school thinks about our school.”
And those representations will be around for future generations of Sunset Hill students as well.