Going into the new school year, Cape High art teacher Ragan Callahan knew her students were carrying a lot of emotional trauma after living through 18 months of the pandemic.
Many students had not physically attended school since March 2020, and most sophomores in her advanced painting and drawing class hadn’t done any in-school artwork since eighth grade.
“The first week of school I asked them five questions to check on their mental wellness,” Callahan said. “I asked, what can I know about you to understand who you are, and how I can teach you better?”
Most students were very open, Callahan said. Many said they felt they weren’t ready, were unprepared and nervous, and many didn’t have the background knowledge art students usually do at the high school level.
“A lot of them only knew primary colors, and some had never used paint before,” she said. “I’ve had to rewrite my curriculum every day because they’re in such a different place than they would be in a normal year.”
So, Callahan devised a way to get their feet wet while also giving them confidence as artists.
Each of the 81 students in her three different advanced painting and drawing classes was given a 2-by-3-inch black-and-white photocopy of an image unknown to them. Students had to enlarge the photocopy to a 9-by-12-inch canvas to paint in either warm or cold colors in any style they wished.
“It was almost like a paint by number,” Callahan said. “They had no idea what it was. They just knew somehow it connected.”
At the end of the day Friday, Nov. 12, Callahan’s portfolio prep class helped her install the canvases on the wall. No one else saw the finished project until they returned to school Monday morning.
“They were so excited,” Callahan said.
To create the project for her students, Callahan “mashed together” in Photoshop five different photos of Jeeps and two World War II fire control towers lining the beach. Each student’s individual canvas contributed to the greater project.
“I thought, what are we connected to? Our beach, our towers and our Jeeps,” Callahan said. “I wanted students to feel a connection.”
The project was a less-intimidating way to display art, Callahan said, since no one knows who did what part, and it works as one big piece.
“Last year, school felt so cold and sterile because we were missing so many students and had no art to hang up,” Callahan said. “It feels like art is breathing in the school again.”