Holly Jordan felt inspired last spring. She was having such a good time as a volunteer with the art classes at her children’s school, St. Anthony Park Elementary, that she proposed an art project idea of her own.
Jordan, a self-taught mosaic artist, proposed the creation of a “community mosaic.” Her vision was to create art that “every kid in the school would have a piece of.”
Little did she know that the project that would take several months and several hundred volunteer hours, as well as hundreds of pounds of tile, glue and cement. But the process was necessary to create something that, like a tree, would grow from a seedling of an idea into a magnificent work of art.
The mosaic (7.5 by 12 feet), dubbed the “I Spy-der Tree,” is in the hallway near the school’s main entrance. It was inspired by the “Spider Tree,” a tree on the school playground that got its name from the spindly spread of its multiple trunks. The tree in the mosaic is covered in green leaves, each one as individual as the student who created it.
The mural also contains images that represent the life and learning that goes on in the school. Each “mini mural” was suggested and created by a particular classroom. The school’s emphasis on environmental education can be seen in a cloud, the sun and the moon, animals, and images of the Peace Garden and the Prairie Garden the school tends. There is also a caterpillar, chrysalis and butterfly that Jordan says “represent the journey each child takes as they enter these doors in kindergarten and leave in sixth grade.”
The project began last April with discussions about where to mount a mosaic piece. After several sites around the school were discussed, the wall outside the office was chosen. Negotiations with school district engineers about how to mount the heavy piece to the wall ensued.
Meanwhile, Jordan and art specialist Courtney Oleen had just a few weeks before the end of school to get students busy composing the mosaic. Sketches were made and ideas were discussed. Jordan found herself tossing and turning in bed one night, troubled that even after many sketches she “didn’t connect” with any of them.
“I got out of bed and started sketching and it just came to me: Every single kid knows the Spider Tree. My daughter had talked about it and I noticed that kids are always hanging out there.”
The St. Anthony Park School Association donated money for glue and grout, and other donations flowed in from families: plywood, china and pottery, tiles, stones and shells — all kinds of pieces that could be embedded in the mosaic.
“It’s a really amazing community in that way,” says Jordan. “When a need arose, there was always someone right there to lend a hand.”
She organized “smashing sessions.” Volunteers showed up to break china and pottery that was then sorted by color into buckets to create a palette of materials for students to work with.
In the case of local potters Ken Chin-Purcell and Kristal Leebrick, they had to smash their own donated pieces. Nobody had the heart to break handmade pottery. By the end of the school year, several hundred mosaic pieces filled the art room.
Once the plywood boards were bolted to the hallway wall in August, Jordan and Oleen got busy mounting pieces of the mosaic. “We had about 30 percent of the mosaic up by the first day of school,” says Jordan. “Kids were very excited.”
Students got to see the work of art they started the previous spring take final shape as Jordan and her team of volunteers proceeded to fill in the trunk of the tree, the sky and other background elements. Extra baubles and trinkets found their way into the mosaic as they worked.
“One day,” says Jordan, “I’d like to go through and list all the things there are.”
The work was finally finished on October 10, just in time to make its community debut at the school’s annual Fall Festival on October 26.
Jordan estimates that as many as 600 people contributed — even in a small way — to this project: students and their families, school staff, donors and especially the core group of volunteers who “got down and dirty” applying tiles and grout along with Jordan.
She’s excited and proud about all the connections the mosaic represents. Just as a mosaic creates an image from many pieces, so does a community come together.
Jordan had time to talk to students as she worked on the mosaic this fall. She says they would often ask her, “Where’s my leaf?” Her reply was, “Well, it’s up there somewhere.”
She adds, “They may need to look a little harder and remember there’s a lesson in that: You’re a piece of this whole picture.”