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Art for the ages

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Most of us know the story of how Michelangelo lay on his back as he painted his incredible mural of God and man on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, his skill, love and genius coming together to create an artistic gift for the ages.

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Though it might not be quite of the same historical proportions, some richly talented art students and their teacher have created their own impressive work of art on a ceiling right here in Shelby County.

Just walk into the lobby of Shelby County High School and glance up, and you will find an amazing gift of artistic wonder that the school’s advanced art students are leaving behind to enlighten and educate visitors for as long as it can endure, sort of like Michelangelo did.

And it’s all about some of humanity’s most recognizable artworks painted right there on your garden variety, hardware-store-quality ceiling tiles.

“I have some incredibly talented students,” said Joni Eyster, the teacher whose advanced art classes made this dream project a reality.

Your immediate impression, if you will, might be that these are just familiar posters pressed to tiles and scattered among the lights, sprinklers and speakers. But look again.

Each is a miniature art project, dozens of depictions in acrylics that have been arranged by the students to present an artistic timeline from the antiquities and cave paintings right up to the 1970s and Andy Warhol, each with an art and history lesson in its hand-lettered legend.

 “It’s all right out of core curriculum, including all the humanities,” Eyster said. “We wanted it to be even bigger, but you just can’t do everything.”

Michelangelo spent approximately seven years painting the Sistine Chapel, and Eyster has spent nearly four  making this project real. For the last two of those, her best and most dedicated students have researched, designed, created and perfected their displays.

What would seem a relatively simple class project has evolved into lessons in project development and presentation along with a finer understanding of the works of some of history’s grand masters.

Whether your tastes run from Stonehenge to Monet or Van Gogh to Edward Hopper, there’s something for you, each richly portrayed as close to authentic as is possible, save the perforations that are part of those tiles.

And, yes, you’ll see Michelangelo’s famed work, as well,   The idea

Developing this concept was relatively simple – other high schools and art schools had created similar public projects – but getting it aloft, so to speak, was about as elementary as teaching the clumsiest of us how to draw more than a straight line with a ruler.

First the students had to write a formal project plan to present to the administration. This included cost analysis – those tiles were $2.50 apiece, if you care -- safety projections, acoustical impacts, an understanding of the limits and longevity of the tiles themselves. And they had to make a commitment to seeing it through in a first-class manner but with a clear understanding of how this art might not last forever.

Questions flew back and forth until one day, Eyster said, SCHS Interim Principal Michael Rowe came to her classroom, took a look at the presentation and said. “Let’s go for it.”

  How they did it

Once it finally was approved, this project was not as simple as buying the acrylic paint, brushes and tiles and divvying up the work.

First the students studied the Sistine Chapel to learn about process and how to make it work. Then they created a schematic showing all the tiles they wanted to place, including the locations of all those lights, sprinklers and speakers.

They sketched each piece of art in pencil on a pad, to develop and refine technique, and then those sketches were shrunk to Post-It size and stuck into the squares of the schematic. “We moved those around quite a bit,” Eyster said. “We wanted to get the timeline just right.”

She said the students, too, helped select the location and determine the flow of the work, so that the modern pieces they preferred were in the higher-traffic areas near the school’s office.

Then there was a system for choosing who got to do which pieces. The seniors got first choice, and some of them worked in pairs .

No small undertaking was the hand-lettered inscriptions on each piece of art. Hours and hours were invested to get the right information in neat and consistent form, including the students’ names.

That’s where Eyster got adult help. Local architect Scott Whitaker and his wife worked diligently in support of the project.

“They worked on weekends, Sundays, around Christmas,” Eyster said. “A lot of people can talk the talk, but these are folks who can walk the walk. They’re still helping.”

  Unfinished works

There are now approximately 75 tiles in place, and that number still is growing. “Some kids got sick, some graduated, some just got behind,” Eyster said. “But others have jumped in to help finish as many as possible. We’re still working. Mona Lisa has Cleopatra’s eyes, and we’re working on things like that.”

Each piece can take at least three or four days to complete, and that’s after all the research and fine-tuning. For some students, it will take a week or more.

Eyster said one of her senior students, Gethsy (pronounced HEX-i) Mendez, contributed the most tiles, and she has spent hours helping touch up and complete others. “She’s amazingly talented,” Eyster said.

And Mendez is a good example of why Eyster wanted to do this project.

“We had such incredibly gifted kids both years and nothing lasting of them in this building,” she said. “Even this isn’t permanent, of course. But we wanted to answer, ‘How can I honor top-notch kids with something that stands the test of time?’

“You know, sports teams have their trophies for people to remember them by. These students wanted to leave something behind to show the talent of the art program. In the arts it’s not so easy to have something permanent.”

The public will get its formal opportunity to appreciate their work at a reception on May 12, the day of the big art show in the small gym, but Eyster is hoping that won’t be the end.

“Yes, these are ceiling tiles, and they easily can be damaged, but they are also terrific pieces of art that can be moved to different locations or even framed. They can live on.”