Artist’s Oak Park Elementary Roots Inspire Students

The Oak Park Elementary School 8'x48' mural overlooks the playground on the west side of the building.

The Oak Park Elementary School 8’x48′ mural overlooks the playground on the west side of the building.

Oak Park Elementary students are playing under a new 8-foot by 48-foot mural they helped create this year with the help of artist-in-residence Chris Vance.

Every student in the school created and submitted artwork to be considered for the mural. Vance selected more than 40 pieces, some from every grade level.

He integrated the art into a four-panel piece, telling the story of student growth, from the playful, silly kindergarten sketches on the left, progressing to the robots and rocket ship the 5th graders created on the right.

The individual drawings are being framed and hung throughout the school.

The project is already having an impact on 4th grader Chelsea Herr-Richardson, who points with pride to her contribution to the mural.

“The duck with the green nose is mine,” she said. “I used my imagination, came up with a lot of ideas and chose my favorite one.”

She sees art school and more painting in her future.  She has a good example to follow.

More than 30 years before the enormous piece of artwork was hoisted up and secured onto the outside of Oak Park Elementary, kindergartner Vance drew his first sketches inside, in Ms. Radcliff’s art class.

“I started out drawing monsters and things like that, just like any other kid,” Vance said.

He felt encouraged in school, and sold his first work in college when his mom decided to frame one of his pieces.

“The framer asked my mom where she got the art,” Vance said. “The framer came over to the house and actually started looking though my portfolio and that’s how I sold some of my first work.”

Vance’s connection to the school was a bonus for students, according to Principal Chris Fee.

“Here’s a guy who was exactly where they are,” Fee said. “I hope it helps them realize the possibilities that exist beyond these walls — that the work they’re doing now carries over into the real world and can change their lives.”

The 39-year-old professional artist’s career has been a hot topic of conversation among students at Oak Park. That’s fine with Vance, who wants them to know they can make a living as an artist.

“When I say that, some of them are like, “No way! That’s all you do?”

Vance has to break the news that there is some tediousness involved.

“Some of it is work,” Vance said. “I have to travel a lot. But the art, I enjoy. That’s not work.”

Turnaround Arts projects like the mural that are not only giving neighborhood families something to celebrate. The program also is drawing in families from outside the school enrollment boundaries. Lacey Thomas had to jump through some hoops to enroll her kindergarten daughter into Oak Park.

“My daughter loves music, she loves dance, that’s what catches her attention,” said Thomas. “So when they said students learn through art, I was like, ‘Ding, ding!’ And so far, we love it.”

She says the mural is confirmation she made a good choice, and her 2-year-old son will likely be an Oak Park kid, too.

See photos of Oak Park Elementary’s Night of the Arts

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