SUNDERLAND — “Our School is a Family,” a multi-colored tile mosaic about the community at Sunderland Elementary School, now hangs in the halls where the kids can point to their contribution and chortle. Cynthia Fisher, the artist who brought it all together, completed the finishing stages last month, in time for the school’s International Dinner.

“The challenge was the timeframe,” Fisher said. “We worked really hard to get it done … so it would be up for that night.”

Fisher, a celebrated mosaic artist with works in many foreign countries and other states, wasn’t the first one to work on the mosaic. The students began the piece by following prompts in their art classes with Issa Revell, the school art teacher.

They painted pictures of themselves, other kids, flowers, toadstools and plants.
The very first task was to decide on a theme for the mosaic. Principal Ben Barshevsky, Revell, Fisher and School Psychologist Victoria Palmer came up with the idea of the school as a family. The International Dinner suggests the incredible diversity of backgrounds at the school where fifteen different languages are spoken by the kids. The sentiment of inclusion, which the school prides itself on, naturally came to mind.

“We really take a lot of pride at our school in the concepts of community and relationships,” Barshevsky said. “The artwork tried to bring out both of those concepts [and] the kids were super excited.”

The project, “Our School is a Family,” was the second time the administration secured a STARS program grant to hire Fisher. The mosaics lining the driveway, with wetlands as a theme, were a previous project. The Buckland resident said the STARS grant program, given through the Massachusetts Cultural Council, funds residencies that promote diversity and inclusion.

One requirement for the grant was to involve the whole school community. A residency also has to span at least three days and directly involve the students in the artistic process. The mural took five days to complete.

“It’s great when the kids can have two or three sessions to work,” Fisher said. “The first time they’re really learning and the second time they’re really excited because they know what to do.” Some students clipped and placed tiles a third time, Fisher said, “which was really wonderful, because each time they get more skilled and come in and get right to it.”

Teams of two or three students worked on a piece of the mural, one of several stations going on at the same time. Younger kids placed whole tiles on a sticky mesh that held them in place. Older students donned goggles and used the nippers to clip tiles into the necessary shapes. Fisher said building a mosaic helps develop hand to eye coordination while exposing the students to the beauty of stained glass.

Fisher, an illustrator of children’s books until she took a class in making mosaics, said the stained glass tiles she uses are “sumptuous” in their colors. A challenge of the medium is the color pallet for a project is limited by the shades of glass that already exist. Another primary limitation is that tiles can’t be layered the way paint is layered on a canvas.

“The color of the glass is so sumptuous,” Fisher said. “The color combinations that glass comes in, and especially the stained glass … the beautiful quality of stained glass … It’s just so inspiring to work with those kinds of materials.”

The STARS grant program suggests artists share with the students why they love the artistic discipline they practice. Fisher loves holding stained glass tiles in her hands, the tactile sense of having the colors and materials against her fingertips. She also loves the freedom to do abstracts or figural representations. Illustration, Fisher’s first discipline, often required a consistent style, which hampered her creativity.

The mosaic was a hit at the International Dinner. Barshevsky heard a parent say she loved to revisit the art she helped to create when she was a child. Kids pointed to the piece of the mosaic they contributed, including a border of rich saturated blues, yellows, reds and greens.

“It’s important in terms of community,” Barshevsky said of the inclusive family orientation of the school. “It allows us to appreciate cultures other than our own. Everyone has something to offer, something to bring to the table. It’s one of the many reasons Sunderland Elementary School shines.”

dpruyne@thereminder.com | + posts