It’s not every day that children have the opportunity to work alongside experienced artists to participate to making artwork that will become a permanent fixture of their school.

Last spring, Blythe Park Elementary School reached out to the Riverside Arts Center (RAC) asking if their staff would be interested in helping to create a proposal for a school beautification project and spearhead an effort where the professional artists could incorporate the work of the students. 

The moment RAC school manager and instructor Shawn Vincent heard about Blythe Park’s idea, she jumped right on board. 

First, Blythe Park teachers showed Vincent the area they envisioned for an art installation, and Vincent and other RAC artists created submitted project proposals. Because the artwork was meant to be displayed on school grounds and enhance the aesthetic of the school, the RAC ensured the project included the work of every student at the school.

Along with incorporating the work from all Blythe Park students, Vincent says she and the other two professional artists on the project, Tami Gagne and Tariq Tamir, felt it would be best to have the project be reflective of nature and environmental awareness. 

“It’s a project that not only does school beautification and incorporates work of all the students, it also has a lot to do with reflecting Earth Day and Earth Week,” Vincent said.

In April 2016, Vincent and her colleagues started part one of the three-part artist-in-residency project they designed, with each student creating small ceramic mushrooms to be placed in a school garden near the entrance of the school. 

The artists then collected different sizes of bottle caps and chip bags to include an element of recycling and reusable art into the project. From that, students used the bottle caps to make their own small mosaics that adorn the caps of giant mushrooms made with the help of the RAC artists, and the chip bags were shredded to make confetti that tops the mini mosaics. Additionally, students also helped create mosaic signs bearing the school’s name. 

The RAC artists started working with the students throughout last spring, and the mushrooms were installed before the end of last school year. 

“We made sure all the kids were involved and then we took care of the big stuff back at the art center,” Vincent added. 

While the mushroom garden project has been complete for almost a year now, Vincent says the creativity will continue this spring with further art and campus beautification projects focused on teaching students not just the importance of the arts, but also about nature and preservation.

“This doesn’t end here — this is just step one,” she said. “We are growing this every year, so this is going to be a three- to four-year project where every year we’re going to do another Earth Week or Earth Day-related project with the kids and incorporate it into the outside-scape.”

Projects like the Blythe Park ones are the very things Vincent likes to focus on with area schools. In her role with the RAC, she manages everything that goes on with the school end of the center, including helping create art curriculums, managing classrooms and teachers, setting up artist-in-residency programs and organizing educational field trips. 

And, in a world where technology is becoming ever-present in the classroom, Vincent believes collaborative community art projects with young students are more important than ever. 

“I think it gives the students an opportunity to see that art can be a part of everyday life and that art is important in every discipline,” she said. “Maybe kids that have never been exposed to it or did anything to this scope grants these kids a completely comfortable setting to work on a piece of artwork and know that it will be there and hopefully encourage kids to come in and take classes and know that art is within reach for everybody.”