Growing Creativity: Four Years of Mosaics with Coonley Elementary

April 5, 2017

Some of our most fulfilling projects are when we can not only help a community to beautify its space, but also when we can bring together different groups in the spirit of creative learning. In the past, The Chicago Mosaic School has taken on many projects with local schools to help supplement their fine arts curriculum and foster placemaking by creating installations with student involvement. This April, we are concluding a particular project that has incredibly enriching to us as educators. 

Spring, Summer, and Fall themed mosaic murals from our previous three years working with Coonley Elementary School students.

2017 marks the fourth year of an ongoing project between CMS and Coonley Elementary School in the North Center neighborhood of the Chicago. Every year, our youth instructors have helped design and oversee fabrication of a series of mosaic murals that depict a tree changing through the seasons. The mosaic is completed by that year’s 5th grade class, with each student creating one tile that figures into the overall design.

This past February, CMS faculty members Casey Van Loon, Lydia Shepard, and Becca Baruc led approximately 120 5th grade students in the construction of their tiles. After previous years of students making a spring, summer, and autumn trees, the 2017 group created a winter tree, using stained sheet glass in beautiful shades of blue, gray, white, and brown to evoke the subtle hues created by shadows and light on snow.

Coonley students dive right in! A pre-set color palette for the project was organized into containers for students to use in their tiles.

Look at that concentration! Students glue the glass to a Wedi board substrate. Image courtesy of Renee Butala, 5th grade teacher at Coonley Elementary.

One completed mosaic tile. The tiles will be arranged into a composite image of a tree and grouted. Image courtesy of Renee Butala, 5th grade teacher at Coonley Elementary.

The mural starts to come together as students place tiles onto the composite! Image courtesy of Renee Butala, 5th grade teacher at Coonley Elementary.

In addition to the murals made by the 5th graders, CMS artists have been working on the fabrication of a large mosaic archway for the halls of the school with the assistance Coonley 8th graders and the mentorship of high schoolers in the After School Matters (ASM) program. CMS artists and ASM participants workshopped the imagery for the archway with 8th students in several design sessions both on-site at Coonley Elementary and at CMS. The scene depicts scenes of the city of Chicago, including the lakefront, the “Bean,” the Navy Pier ferris wheel, and the Chicago skyline. In a clever callback to the 5th grade students’ murals, the archway also depicts four trees- each one in a different seasonal state.

Coonley Elementary 8th graders participate in a design workshop to plan imagery for the broad mosaic archway that will be install at Coonley this April

CMS Instructor Lydia Shepard grouts last year’s Autumn Tree mosaic mural with the help of high school students in the After School Matters program

Because of the large scale of the archway, the mosaic has taken months to complete, with our wonderful ASM high schoolers working meticulously to recreate Coonley’s designs under the the supervision and with the help of CMS artist. The archway has been fabricated in sections that will then be assembled together to create one seamless mural. The archway employs a number of design techniques to create different patterns and textures differentiating the sky from the grass, or evoking the reflective metallic quality of the “Bean” (Anish Kapoor’s iconic Millennium Park Sculpture Cloud Gate). It will be installed at Coonley Elementary this April.

The final mosaic mural depicting a tree in winter.

We are so proud of the students at Coonley for their enthusiasm and creativity, and also with our ASM students for their hard work and dedication to mentoring their young peers. For us, it’s projects like these where we really get to see the full potential of arts education on display! Not only do we get the chance to introduce a new generation to a unique art form, but we get to see our students reap the rewards of engaging critically with a new material, learning to think about aesthetics and expression, techniques and fabrication, and also profit from the lively dynamic of multi-age learning. Now, when they walk through the halls of their school, Coonley kids can see the lasting mark that they made on their environment and their community. 


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