In Dr. Seuss’s children’s book, “McElligot’s Pool,” a boy named Marco tries to catch a fish in a trash-filled pond and, having no luck, imagines that an underground brook feeds the pond before flowing to the sea, which is filled with bizarre creatures such as a two-headed eel and a seahorse with a horse’s head.
This story and its imagery were the starting points for the “using your imagination” theme of a playful, colorful new mural on the side walls of the entryway of North Falmouth Elementary School.
Students read the classic book earlier this school year.
Bringing in the artist, Caleb Neelon of Cambridge, was the idea of art teacher Kathryn Sodaitis, who saw one of Mr. Neelon’s murals at Boston Children’s Hospital last year.
Falmouth Education Foundation awarded Ms. Sodaitis a $2,500 grant for the project to reinvent the entryway, which previously had featured a dark-colored geometric mural with photographs. The school’s parent teacher organization also helped fund the project.
Last month Mr. Neelon visited the school and gave two workshop-style presentations to the young students.
Throughout this week he stayed at the school as an artist-in-residence, painting the mural with his assistant, Lena McCarthy of Boston, during school hours while classes of students visited to observe and ask questions.
The finished mural shows a coastal scene with a lighthouse, wood fences and beach foliage, a setting (or rising?) sun in a bird-filled orange sky, and a washy blue undersea world populated with ocean creatures. It uses the entryway lights as the tops of floating buoys.
The two artists used acrylic paints, brushes, odorless water-based spray paints and stencils to create colors and shapes that look like they come from a children’s picture book.
“I grew up loving the children’s books of illustrator Ed Emberley, and I’ve been fortunate to have worked with him on books and museum shows in my career,” Mr. Neelon said during the mural installation Tuesday, January 4. “I’m using one of Mr. Emberley’s drawing tricks called ‘picture pies,’ which are like cut-up pizza slices, and asked the students in the workshops to create sketches of fish using stickers on paper.”
Mr. Neelon studied the students’ fish designs and incorporated many of the simple shapes and other visual elements into his finished work.
A group of kindergartners, 2nd graders and 4th graders gathered in the entryway Tuesday to talk with Mr. Neelon, asking questions that included how to choose and mix colors.
“Kids have a hard time stopping when they’re mixing colors, since it’s so much fun,” Mr. Neelon said, pointing out the cranberry color of the radiator. “If you mix all the colors together, what do you get?”
“Brown!” the students shouted in unison.
In answer to a question about how he works with his assistant, Mr. Neelon said he enjoys the surprises that come from working with another artist.
“We don’t really have a full plan up front, and I don’t know what she [Ms. McCarthy] is going to do. Part of the fun is working together,” he said.
In the coming weeks students will use Mr. Neelon’s improvisational approach to art-making to create their own three-dimensional sea sculptures from recycled materials in art class, Ms. Sodaitis said. They will use found objects, spare parts, plastic, Styrofoam, paint and other materials to make the elements in their own imaginary ocean.
One student asked if Mr. Neelon would use each of the students’ fish designs in the mural.
“They’re everybody’s fish and no one’s fish. There’s a lot that’s changing from the stickers you put on paper to the fish I paint on the wall. I wouldn’t be able to do this without your ideas,” he said.
Perhaps the most eye-catching part of Mr. Neelon’s mural is the trio of small, goggle-eyed, fuzzy “blue guys” rowing a red boat—a dory, which is the school’s mascot—on the water.
The artist said he has been drawing these “blue guy” characters since he was a kid and incorporates them into many of his murals.
“My ‘blue guys’ mutated from these weird little creatures in Ed Emberley’s ‘Big Purple Drawing Book,’” he said.
Ms. Sodaitis said she thinks the characters represent “influence, inspiration, learning and creativity.”
“They’re like children leaving the school and going out into the world,” she said. “Seeing the artist at work is such a great opportunity for the kids to see the process of how art is made. I’m inspired now when I walk in and excited for the possibilities that could happen here at the school. And I’m excited for the kids. I want them to feel this is a place where they can be creative.”