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Art history: for 11 years art students decorate school ceiling

By Rebecca Rider

rebecca.rider@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — The ceiling of Sean Hunter’s classroom could be an art gallery. For more than a decade, the Salisbury High School art teacher has taken down the large ceiling tiles and let his advanced art students cover them with color.

“There’s 11 years’ worth of ceiling tiles,” he said, looking up at the tall ceiling.

In that time, only two semesters of the Art 3 class have opted out of the project.

Decorating ceiling tiles is not an uncommon practice, Hunter said. Most high schools have a similar project, allowing students to paint original works on a few tiles.

But Hunter runs his assignment a little differently. Each painting has to be a “masterwork reproduction” of a work by a recognizable, researchable artist. The evenly spaced tiles on Hunter’s ceiling cover all eras of art — from da Vinci and the Renaissance to impressionists such as van Gogh, to pop art and contemporary pieces.

The project is challenging for students, but it also allows Hunter a glimpse into their personalities.

“They end up being drawn to a specific era,” he said.

He recalls one student who was fascinated with pin-up style pieces. Another who loved Japanese animation painted “The Great Wave” by Katsushika Hokusai.

Each tile is numbered, and Hunter keeps a list of which student is responsible for each tile. But most of the time, he doesn’t need the list; point to almost any tile and he can recall the student’s name and a short anecdote about him or how he chose the piece.

“It’s just a lot of memories,” he said. “I remember every kid.”

The tiles take students about a month of daily work to complete. Students draw a grid on a printout of the piece they plan to reproduce and on the tile, and then they work painstakingly within each square. By Art 3, students have learned advanced color and shading techniques.

The current crop of students, a group of six, are spending their last days of school working on the tiles. Ebony Lewis dabbed blue paint on her tile, bringing to life Vladamir Kush’s “Departure of the Winged Ships.” The boats in the painting move across the water with butterfly wing sails. Lewis said she chose the piece because she likes butterflies.

Across the table, Matthew Wright leaned in close to work on his reproduction of da Vinci’s “Madonna of the Rocks.”

“I wanted to do something that was challenging but still possible for me to do,” he said.

But Wright may be one of the last students allowed to re-create da Vinci’s work.

“There’s, like, four or five artists I have to ban from the ceiling or I’d have a whole ceiling full,” Hunter said.

Works by Vincent van Gogh and Georgia O’Keeffe, for example, are no longer options for students.

Hunter tries to guide the students to pieces that play to their strengths — portraits, pop art without shading, or pointillism.

But there’s a bit of uncertainty for the future of the project. Hunter isn’t sure if he’ll have to change classrooms next year when the school’s advanced manufacturing track kicks off. Parts of the track are slated to be housed in the same small building as his classroom.

If he does move, Hunter isn’t sure what will happen to the tiles or the project. His room is one of the only ones at Salisbury High to have such large ceiling tiles. But more than one student has told him, “If you ever take the ceiling tiles down, call me.”

“Lot of history in my ceiling,” Hunter said, looking up. “Lot of kids.”

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264. 

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