Middle school could be a scary place.
For up to seven years, children have gone to school in one building. They know its corridors. Know every ramp and window.
Then, whoosh, off to a new building. With new kids in it that they’ve never met before. All new teachers to meet.
It’s exciting and terrifying. Change is hard.
Buzz Aldrin Middle School is a big building. But when you walk in the door you’re immediately greeted by colorful murals spelling out BAMS. The letters were designed by Alex Kraus, 14. There were four panels, so he decided to spell out the school name, BAMS. Each one represents a different environment: space for Buzz Aldrin, the jungle, underwater, the desert.
And as you walk around you notice murals everywhere: Food painted by the cafeteria. A sign that says “Let it grow” points to the greenhouse. Upstairs, World Heritage sites depicted in “Wonders of the World:” pyramids, the great barrier reef.
Outside the girls’ locker room, there are images of girls doing every kind of sports. Positive affirmations adorn the halls.
Some designs are expressionistic, some are realistic, some are more abstract.
All of the art is the work of former or current students. Fran Legman teaches an elective called “Mural Painting” in the fall and spring, open to all grades. “I give them carte blanche about the designs,” Legman said. About 60 students took the classes.
The school is not open to the public in general, but when people come in for a play or concert or public event they can see the murals.
The idea for the murals began five years ago, when Kelsey Kaelin-Panico was running for eighth grade Student Council, and as part of her platform called for art in the cafeteria. Kaelin-Panico now attends Montclair High School.
At first it wasn’t a class, just an idea; students sketched ideas for a class (not an art class), and Legman volunteered to help the kids make the murals. “It was an opportunity for them to design and paint large and have it hanging up and have the pleasure of seeing it,” she said.
The murals are all different sizes. The one outside the cafeteria is about 20 feet long, where others are about four feet by four feet. Students also work puzzle pieces, made by individuals, that are about 14 inches by 14 inches, that are then fit together on the wall to be a mural.
Because she teaches digital photography, her room is also a computer lab. “They don’t paint on computer desks,” she said with a laugh. Finding space to work, and then to hang the murals, which are painted on fabric that adheres to the walls, is a challenge. The mural project also means everyone is working on different projects at the same time. All of the sketches and techniques need different kinds of help.
How it works is that Legman and the class discuss possible motifs: diversity, the sea.
When the students come up with designs, and bring them in. “I give them carte blanche with the design,” Legman said. The students vote, and Legman also has a say on what will work on the walls. hen she creates teams of students to implement them. For example, Ofri Kafri-Chen helped with the shading work on 13-year-old Layla Sherman’s designs. “Layla was great with the large shapes, and Ofri was great with detail,” Legman said.
Esther Kim, 13, wanted to make murals around the school. “I had only painted on a small canvas, but I had never painted on a larger scale,” she said. She designed Buzz Aldrin in space.
Working on that large scale offered the young artists a chance to develop new skills. Even the physical motions were very different from drawing.
Kraus loves art but had never done much painting. He loved the class so much his designs became part of his portfolio for Montclair High School’s advanced art school.
“It took a lot longer than I expected. Sketching is super easy, it’s quick, but actually making it took a long time. I wasn’t used to using so much paint,” Kraus said. He’s very serious about art and wants to have a career in art.
Sherman enjoyed working with other students. “I could talk to them, and let them help me make my piece better,” she said. “I don’t paint. I draw on my iPad.” Now she likes painting, and thinks she’ll continue with it. She’d like to be an illustrator.
“The best part was collaboration,” said Kim. “And also the hardest part was collaboration, hearing everyone’s opinions.” And the sketches were small, and had to be enlarged. Some sketches were gridded and others were put onto acetate and projected using an overhead projector.
For Legman, one of the best things about the project is just walking through the hallways, and seeing the transformation of the building from an institutional style to something filled with color.
And students love to see their work, and their signatures, up for everyone to see.
“I think at the beginning of this school I thought I’d leave and no one would remember me,” said Kraus. “Finishing it was definitely worthwhile.