Art reference

NC Art Teacher Builds Community During COVID-19

Dirty lockers with peeling paint became a canvas for art students at Fairmont High School. Hallways are lined with brightly painted lockers displaying students’ and teachers’ favorite books, movies and music albums.

In 2020, before COVID-19 moved schools to virtual learning, Steven Taylor, an art teacher at Fairmont High School, asked students in his Advanced Placement class to brainstorm an idea for lockers.

He started with the question, “Well, what does it look like?”

This introduced the students to the concept of a library. The lower shelves act as traditional reference books, while the upper shelves come alive with colorful book spines. Featured texts include classics like “Killing a Mockingbird” and “Charlotte’s Web”, but also newer favorites like “Harry Potter” and “The hunger Games.

After virtual learning left students feeling disconnected, this art project and others like it provided an opportunity for self-expression and connection.

Taylor says this project showcases the artistic styles of the students. Cheyenne McNeill/EducationNC

Taylor said the project not only allowed students to be creative, but also sparked conversations.

“Some of them said, ‘What is this book about?’ or ‘What is this?’” he says. “We tried to bridge that gap between things that I thought were important and things that they would think were important.”

From there, Taylor and her students were inspired to do more in their corner of campus.

The former school art teacher drew several large squares on a classroom wall. After completing their first set of lockers, Taylor and her students began thinking about how these squares could be turned into an art project. They went with a “character select” look, similar to what you see in video games like Mario Kart.

Taylor said choosing this topic led to an art lesson he never planned.

Senior Katlyn Tyler painted several characters on the “character select” wall in Taylor’s classroom. Cheyenne McNeill/EducationNC

“We started doing anime and cartoon characters. You have to learn Van Gogh, you have to learn from the past, but the art these kids see today is that and they all want to draw it,” Taylor said.

Exploring different types of art allowed students to Fairmont High School to have a sense of solidarity with their school.

Due to COVID-19, many of the seniors in her classes were unable to complete their projects, so they returned to school over the summer to complete their assignments.

“Older people who were in the middle of the squares and doing other things actually came back. I had two or three come back during summer school,” Taylor said. “They were graduating and going to college, but they were very keen to finish.”

Students use reference photos to help when painting bins and squares. Cheyenne McNeill/EducationNC

Others called back and asked how the project was going, if the squares and lockers were finished, and asked what books and characters were being added to the project. For Taylor, it was worth it.

“So it’s like a big interesting school beautification thing, and then I try to synergize with all my classes. It started with something really small, and now it’s gotten really big said Taylor.

Taylor’s class is not alone in its efforts to beautify the school. Krista Rachels joined the Fairmont High School faculty in 2019 when it absorbed South Robeson High School.

Rachels saw the impact of these big projects and began incorporating them into her class. She recently teamed up with the drama teacher to create lockers designed to look like posters.

Rachels classes are just beginning the process of painting lockers outside the school’s theater classroom. Cheyenne McNeill/EducationNC

Rachels said these projects allow students to feel connected to Fairmont High School, something she said is particularly important since school resumed and the pandemic began.

“We saw so many social and emotional changes with these students,” Rachels said.

When the schools merged, Rachel said there was tension between students from different schools. She thinks being able to come and be part of an arts program like this has allowed some of that tension to dissipate.

Taylor students painted this motto on the doors of the gymnasium at Fairmont High School. Cheyenne McNeill/EducationNC

Taylor and Rachels art classes contribute to the whole campus. Rachels’ class paints the football field, while students in Taylor’s class design posters for clubs and sports teams. Fairmont High School art students also painted murals in other teachers’ classrooms when asked.

Art teachers say students at every level take ownership and pride in their school and their artwork. Today, these projects have become something teachers and students on campus look forward to seeing progress and are excited to incorporate into their classrooms.

“My favorite thing about the art projects we’ve done here is the expression we’re able to show,” said Fairmont High School senior Katlyn Tyler. “Each student has a different art style and characters that they like. They’re able to show things that they like and I think that’s something really unique here.

For Taylor, these huge projects are a way to shine a light on some of the shyest students in her classes.

“One of my goals is to give kids a platform,” Taylor said. “So it’s that kind of vehicle for them to be seen and also to find a safe space to do that.”