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Western teacher puts art where its least expected

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Kirby

Art— Western Primary art teacher Kirby Griffith brightens up the school with her ceiling tile art work.

RUSSIAVILLE - Sometimes it’s OK to lift up your head, stare at the ceiling and dream when you are at school.

It’s kind of hard not to at Western Primary and Intermediate School.

That’s because the school’s art teacher, Kirby Griffith, is turning Western into a Sistine Chapel of cartoon characters, book covers, sports teams and uplifting quotes one ceiling tile at a time.

Griffith got the idea from a California teacher in 2011, and since that time she has painted more than 25 tiles. She saw it as a way to connect with her fellow teachers.

“When I first started doing it, I could tell it was something they were loving because I had every teacher asking, ‘Can you make me one?’ I still have that,” she said. “The new teachers that we hire come in and see them and say, ‘I want one for my room.’”

The majority of the tiles are placed just above the entrance to the classroom, and oftentimes the tile will reflect a chosen theme by the classroom’s teacher. For instance, music teacher Kalyn Smith has a monster theme in his class. Griffith was just finishing up a new tile that features a glittering green monster of glam rock to replace Smith’s “Charlotte’s Web” tile that he brought with him when he switched from teaching second grade to music.

So now Griffith’s waitlist not only includes teachers who are awaiting their first tile, but teachers eager to add a tile that matches their new classroom theme. There’s definitely a “Star Wars” tile in her future to complete Mrs. Meek’s class decor.

Griffith uses a mix of tempera and acrylic paint to craft the tiles, and sometimes adds in other materials such as chalk or oil pastels. Occasionally she will work on a tile during class so the children can watch. She said the process is great for encouraging the students’ imagination.

“They can’t believe a person can really do that — they’ve never seen [someone make art] — and they get excited about it,” she said.

While working on Mr. Smith’s monster tile, a number of children told her they were going to practice drawing their own monsters when they got home from school. She encouraged them to bring in and share their work.

“Kids love creativity, especially in our building,” said Griffith.

The tiles aren’t just for aesthetics. When children walk into the building and see a favorite character or read a comforting quote, it helps set them at ease, makes the school feel like a safe place and brings positive energy. It’s like bringing a piece of home to sit on a work desk for them, Griffith explained.

“[Students] are looking for, I think, the number one thing is safety and to feel welcomed,” she said. “These do that. The bright colors — one thing everyone comments on is how bright and colorful my room is. Colors make people feel excited. They just give you an energy that you don’t normally have. When kids come in and they see the color or they see a colorful ceiling tile or they see colorful artwork in a hallway, it does give them that sense of ‘I feel welcomed,’ ‘I feel happy,’ and ‘I feel safe here.’”

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Ceiling Art-- Western teachers request ceiling art from Kirby Griffith that matches their classroom themes or inspires with an uplighting phrase. 

And it’s not just the students who benefit from the art.

“I think, for the teachers, it’s something that when they see it they know it’s theirs, it belongs to their room,” said Griffith. “Especially if it has a positive saying on it. Before they walk into their room, they can stop and read it. Or if they are having a rough day, they can walk out into the hallway and look up and say, ‘I said I was going to let it go, so I’m going to let it go.’”

“Let it go,” a phrase popularized from the 2013 Disney film “Frozen”, is of course represented among the tiles, complete with a painting of the snowman Olaf.

“Each of the tiles people pick is personal to them,” said Smith. “So when I walk in and look at it, it helps me start my day off right. It helps us start our day with a positive. They have brought a lot of joy to the building, and the kids love it, too, because they get to see us as more than a teacher.”

“It’s another way for kids to connect with us,” he said.

As a child, Griffith watched her grandfather do watercolor paintings and whittle wood, and he started to teach her techniques like how to hold the paintbrush. She loved it and began begging her parents for sketch books. In high school she exceled at art and entered college expecting to go into advertising. When the school removed its advertising program, she moved to art history with the goal to be a college art professor. After doing some student teaching with young children whom she affectionately calls “the littles”, she fell in love.

“That’s it. I’m going to be a teacher for littles,” she said.

In class she tries to introduce her students to new art materials they maybe wouldn’t have access to at home. She also likes to incorporate art history into her projects, showing students work by Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Griffith says children look at works by artists like Picasso and Basquiat — whose cubist and expressionistic works portray distorted figures or appear as childlike doodles — and get excited because they see their own skill level reflected within the work of the two very talented artists. Warhol brings repetition into play and also shows students that even a pop culture icon or a can of soup can be art. So a child’s drawing of a Pokemon is just as valid as a picture of a flower.

“[First graders’] work looks like Picasso,” she said. “They love it. They feel like it’s goofy and funny.”

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Charlotte's Web— As a second grade teacher, Kalyn Smith asked for a panel featuring his favorite childhood book, "Charlotte's Web."

Griffith said she loves Western’s commitment to art and other special programs like music, physical education and library time. The classes allow students to explore and release energy they normally wouldn’t be able to in traditional classes. She hopes some students might see art as a viable career choice, if they struggle in other subjects like math and science. And if art isn’t a child’s specialty, she hopes they at least get some comfort and excitement from the tiles.

Griffith wants to start an after-school art club and teach her budding artists how to paint tiles so they can collaborate with her on future projects.