The mural stretched across an entire wall of the cafeteria at the Expo Alternative Learning Center in Waterloo.
Scaffolding laid over white cloth peppered with colorful flecks of paint held four Expo students diligently painting an array of trees sprouting from green grass beneath a sky streaked with purples and blues, all under the watchful eye of four University of Northern Iowa art education students and Associate Professor of Art Wendy Miller.
The UNI students toggled between painting and instructing – use this color here or use the side of your brush to make the lines thin there.
Up on the scaffolding, the Expo students laughed and joked or silently focused on bringing the mural to life. They work on the project for two hours every week. When it’s time to clean up for the day, they raise a cry of protest. They don’t want the UNI students to leave.
The mural is a product of Miller’s Issues and Theories in Art Education course, which studies the ways art can impact others and how art can give voice to people who are often left out of the conversation. In this way, the Expo Alternative Learning Center is the ideal venue. The school brings in students from across the Cedar Valley who have struggled in some way in other schools.
“The mural is a great example of giving voice to a small population of students who may not have the chance to otherwise,” Miller said.
The community art project is also especially suited for Expo, because the school currently lacks an art teacher, making the mural a vital outlet for the Expo students’ creative expression.
“The students at Expo are very creative, and each brought unique skills to the mural project,” Miller said. “We were impressed by how motivated they were to do this and how much they are enjoying school because of this project. It has helped the students feel like leaders in their school and feel ownership and pride in their school. And their confidence has grown tremendously since we began.”
Expo student Easton Jenks said working with the UNI students has helped improve her art skills.
“Meeting these people and having this experience is something I’d never give up,” Jenks said. “The UNI students have been super supportive, and they’ve us a lot with learning how to paint.”
The concept of the mural was developed by the Expo students. It features seven trees of different colors that represent the values of the school.
“It’s about responsibility and respecting others, of accepting everyone and just being a leader,” Jenks said.
And the project is not only beneficial for the Expo students, it’s giving Miller’s UNI students experience for their careers as teachers.
“The art education students get an opportunity to meet diverse students and work to develop relationships with these students,” Miller said. “They learn how to motivate and teach art skills to a wide range of ability levels and how to plan and execute a large mural with a student-centered focus.”
UNI senior Lacy Irwin said that it took some time to build trust and a relationship with the students, but the work was worth it.
“Once you find something that the kids can relate to, you see their eyes light up. It changes the entire atmosphere because that kid is now comfortable and will open up,” Irwin said. “Giving the students a voice and seeing them take ownership of the mural has really cemented why I want to become an art teacher - to teach young people that their voice matters and a love for the arts.”
UNI senior Amanda Erps said at first the concept of developing a mural was daunting, but being able to tackle it as a team made the task less daunting.
“We were able to bring a group of students together, who do not have an art class, to create a beautiful representation of Expo High,” Erps said. “It is so important for students to have a place to have fun and dive into their creativity. These students have grown so much through this experience and have a newfound sense of accomplishment and confidence within themselves.”