Rural Murals By Students as a Public Service


Associate Professor of Art Education, Western Carolina University

EDITOR’S NOTE: Erin has been extremely successful at WCU since she contributed this, and is now Director of The School of Art and Design, and Professor, of Art Education.

This article describes how service-learning based mural projects unfolded and morphed under the full attention and ownership of my college students. While it would be impossible to describe all that was learned in these endeavors, some pragmatic and philosophical aspects are noted, should the reader wish to try their own hand in a similar manner. I am moved when I conjure memories of my college students making public murals. I can still see them climbing in and out of vans and cars, exclaiming their dirty hands caked with paint and discussing at length the funny remarks we would occasionally hear from passersby. Creating murals as a group cast us into a homogeneity that defies the paradigm of individuality so prized in many art classes. Creating murals also enabled us to consider the people for whom we were painting them.

Logistics of our Arts-oriented Service Learning Projects

It began with some e-mails. Lucky for me, Western Carolina University has its own Service Learning staff who actively contacted our regular common community partners to advertise what various departments could offer.
(Photos — Students at work during an early stage of the Pigeon Creek Mural)

To the question of needing visual arts services, the community’s response was basically three-fold:

1. Computer graphic design assistance was requested for the making of websites, and brochures. These jobs were accepted by our Graphic Communication faculty.
2. Art lessons with various populations were needed for limited-times. These endeavors were accepted by various faculty and individual students who brought art classes to our town’s alternative school, nursing homes, Girl Scouts troupes, high school senior projects, nursery schools, and church groups.
3. Murals (interior and exterior) were desired to enliven a particular space and these efforts were presided over by the Art Education Program.

Location is Everything: The Role of Rural Murals
Western Carolina University epitomizes rural living. It is surrounded by very small towns and large mountains that shelter them. While there have been some inroads of chain businesses along the highway, there is a longer tradition of home-spun and area-dependent businesses. Housing is disparate in structure and facade and there are few zoning restrictions with regard to signage. In fact, when I first polled my students to see if they could recall a mural in town, most of them cited the 10–15 billboards that define the main route to campus. Historically, (unless for advertisement) large outdoor paintings or murals are not commonly seen as an element that accompanies rural living. Murals have more of an urban connection — often associated with social causes, or historical description. In rarer instances, murals decorate a indoor space that often needs it — sometimes spurring more awareness and greater care of the area or even awareness of a social cause.

Delta House-The wall after the mural.

One also often links murals with graffiti that is a design form the countryside rarely sees. Thus, I was a little surprised and quite pleased that many people from community agencies wanted us to paint murals on their properties and I was excited to learn what they had in mind. As an art instructor, it seemed like a great project for my classes. The requester of the mural would provide the paint and equipment and my students would have “free paper” to work on. I had great visions that we would complete a staggering number of murals in one semester and gain county-wide repute. Well, in retrospect, we did fulfill all projects we were asked to do, but no two murals were alike and the approach and staffing for each mural varied. What came as the biggest revelation to me was that 75% of the total effort happened without paintbrush in hand. Essentially, the planning and monitoring became the greater learning experience. I kept my students informed about what the mural requester (or client) wanted and allowed them to make democratic decisions when appropriate.

For future art teachers interested in doing service learning via murals here are some conceptual and pragmatic considerations:

Tips for Doing a Public Mural

1. Meet and greet mural requester/client
• Get some basic information on the phone. Their reasons for wanting a mural, descriptors of the agency etc.
• Get directions to place, approximate size of mural, desired themes, how client will provide paint, what is the existing wall surface like? Will the surface need priming, is it covering up other murals or textures?
• When does the consumer want a sketch? Do they want the sketch in color?
• When will the consumer get back to us with their decision?

2. Note safety and logistics on site
• Go to site — check all of the above and measure the mural. Are there access impediments?
• Are there nearby dangers: pipes, hornet nets, poison ivy, asbestos pipes. etc.; What kind of natural or synthetic lighting will the mural receive?
• How much time will the mural take, when is the facility open. when can one work on it? Is there accessibility to water? Must we do a background and medical check for students as some hospitals or crisis shelters might require this?
• Is there appropriate ventilation in/at site?
• Should our color schemes match something? • What are the characteristics of the consumer?

3. Expenses and responsibilities
Materials and responsibilities:
• Ladders, scaffolding
• Paint (what colors) — getting base paint and mixing with tints is cheaper
• Rollers (types and numbers needed)
• Brushes (types and numbers needed)
• Extra containers to mix paint
• Drop Cloth • Tape
• Sponges, Rags
• Stencils or special effect rollers? • Final Sealer

4. The crew
• Collaboration of artistry
• Who will load/unload the vans?
• Who is allowed to have alternate transportation?
• Who will clean equipment?
• Who will create the design?
• How must the painting be organized so that everyone participates as one artist? Who is going to enforce this and how?

Issues in Doing Rural Murals
In doing our murals several issues came up, in part, because I was trying to push forward at a pace that carried a continuum of work. In other words, we worked class-to-class or day after day (and even on weekends) to complete the project and not let time slip by. I felt this was important to the requester of the mural as well as to an ability to maintain consistency in our design mission. Murals done by single persons are usually a lot slower in their execution, but more fluid in their unfolding. A large mural crew must have an agreed-upon direction that capitalizes on student assets but also teaches students new things, rather than just having them color in a drawing of an artist. The largest mural we did had fifteen students working on it and this was made visually cohesive by gridding out the design and having each student complete fifteen squares after creating stencils using traditional African designs, which was requested by the community agency. On other occasions the size of the mural did not merit a large crew so I sent students to consult with the consumers and to go through the motions of making sketches and completing the mural as agreed upon.

All students were required to keep a journal and I did as well, noting the following as interesting points to remember:

1. We were asked to do a mural using the rough sketches of a professional muralist who had been consulted the year before but dropped from consideration because his price was too high. The consumer did not realize the potential liability of using this artist’s sketch so we had to have a student create one (using the same idea) who had not seen this “sample”.

2. We sketched and wrote up a by-measurement cost estimate for a huge perimeter mural to be done at a wing of the local hospital but the project was cancelled because the CEO would not approve of the wall painting for health reasons.

3. One student created a pencil sketch for the mural and the clients almost withdrew their interest because they saw the sketch as what the final image would look like. In the visual arts a sketch is almost always the precursor to a painting but we realized that such terms need to be explained.

4. We began a mural design for a community center using a quilt design that we thought would be widely agreeable and indicative of our area’s Irish-Scott heritage. At first I had my class do some computer imaging to come up with quilt designs. The Center was not displeased but I had not realized that it was an African American Community Center and they asked that we morph some of our designs to include Pan-African symbols. I admitted by mistake of “assuming” to my students and we re-did the computer-generated designs completely.

5. I volunteered my “Introduction to Art Education” class to complete a mural for a Christmas party for underprivileged youth to be held at a school gymnasium. We were asked that our imagery echo a book entitled; Gingerbaby. Initially our ambitions were to illustrate each scene and the details of the illustrated Swedish winter landscape. But the students painted meticulously and we had only one of the 20 panels done after 2 hours. We also experienced technical difficulties with the fragile paper and paint we were given to work with. We had to think fast and compromise. We extracted common elements of the murals: gingerbread baby, trees, houses, animal characters and so on and turned the art room into a production factory. Trace, cut, paint and paste became our mantra and it got done in just the nick of time. In semisweet irony, that clients liked the productions on the weak paper so much — they announced their plan to laminate them for next year!

6. We were asked to paint a map of Africa at an after-school program one hour from Western Carolina University. Research was done and a presentation about Africa (as requested by the programs’ leaders) was made to the program members. The program’s students were then asked to research an assigned African culture and create a symbol that University students would make into silk-screens that could easily print onto T-shirts of the border of the map. The day before the great mural painting activity began no designs had reached us and we had to troubleshoot on site. We used contact paper to mask out students’ designs and we decided to let them write in later phrases from their research because they had not edited this to the point of burning the text onto sticky museum parchment paper.

I was also struck by a middle school student’s comment at the end who asked: “Why Africa?” and told me he hadn’t voted for such design he was very good at graffiti art and they should have asked him. I realized that right or wrong in telling me this, our slight efforts to involve the students in the overall design — were in fact, very slight.

7. One university student went to paint and repaint signs at the Girl Scout camp she’s worked at for years. The new work she did is stunning; the “touch up” work she did (like many touch ups we were asked to do) — is sometimes a last ditch effort to save the rotting wood underneath the old sign or mural. The painting is rough going and not worth the little time it will actually last.

8. At one point we were asked to decorate a business that does a lot of philanthropic work from its guise as a coffee shop. For me, this was not a problem because of the latter reason, however decorative improvements of businesses can be municipal improvements and at some point I may have to weigh the fiscal responsibilities of such activity. For this mural the students painted a lovely Persian scene (which they had to research) and were fed copious amounts of free doughnuts I was told.

9. Painting around cats and dogs at the local humane society may seem like a fun activity until you realize that such a place is filled with barking and mewing cats that circle your ankles. I had only one student with me during this jaunt and the smells of the cat room were so pungent that I must admit we rushed the frieze-oriented image of a daisy field.

10. Editing others’ murals — pleasing everyone: In a final series of murals that will be ongoing at the time of this publication, we are seeking to uplift a town devastated by floods about 5 years ago. The town has a history of being an army barrack and war deployment depot during the 20th century. It is also home to North Carolina’s largest paper mill. The downtown area is about 3 square blocks of vacant shops and some old nostalgic murals showing churches, soldiers going off to war and the mountains. The town enhancement committee seems to be in disagreement about some murals being touched up or covered up so we’re avoiding these and beginning with vacant storefronts and a band shelter. For the latter we’ve been asked to do a huge mountain scene with other town members requesting some last minute brown bears and signs pointing to the bathroom. I tell my students that murals are made in multiples for multiple functions and the key is to tie it all together harmoniously.

Murals as Service Learning in the Context of Art Education

Although many people question value of visual art making- as evidenced by continuous school budget cuts, art educators have long tried to educate the public about the broader benefits of learning through art. As per service learning, art is seen through a lens of community-based applications. Art education scholars such as Russel, Hutzel, Jeffers, Taylor, and Ballengee-Morris have recognized the value of interacting with the general public as a good way to serve society and galvanize a spirit of interest in the “other” in one’s own artwork. Burton (2001) suggested developing new art education methods that favor making connections, fostering social dynamics, and using art to bring people together. Eisner (2001) challenged art educators “to reap the benefits of uncovering universal aesthetics through service learning.” At Western Carolina University Service Learning is defined as: A teaching and learning strategy that integrates community service with academic instruction and structured reflection in such a way that students gain further understanding of course content, meet genuine community needs, develop career-related skills, and become responsible citizens. Most people support enhancing classes through community interaction, but many find it odd that such an exclusive endeavor such as traditional Western art could happen off campus and not produce individual projects to judge. At the university level, Service Learning is often visualized as Social Work students helping at a soup kitchen or Engineering students designing a new playground. Visual Art and Design certainly have their role to play in community improvement, but murals may have a “decorative-facade” connotation and their painting can be seen by art instructors as whimsical decoration. I’ve had colleagues refuse such projects because they don’t want their students to illustrate someone else’s vision. Because of the master-apprentice paradigm in Western art, it is also odd to think that students can learn from each other merely by working beside one another. Finally, the issue of aesthetics might arise. In an art form that is so public, is there a universally appealing aesthetics and if so should mural artists strive for it?

Doing Pro Bono Work or Pro-Bozo Work?
Post-modern artists of the twenty-first century are considered a diverse if not ornery bunch. Their missions include emission of anxiety, social issues, personal obsessions and amalgams of previous art styles (Selz and Stiles, 1996). Yet there is today as there has always been a rift between so called high and low brow art. The “high” art that is discussed in peer reviewed art magazines is predominately postmodern and so are its prices and appeal to avant-garde collectors. At the same time, pastoral painters, such as Thomas Kinkade, have a following (as well as a museum about himself) that exceeds all the monies of our nation’s avant-garde art. The look of Kinkade’s paradisiacal paintings are often cited by art instructors as the quintessential non-art: meaningless (except to console and entertain) and so technically picayune, that evidence of the painter’s passion is lost. The tension between the two dichotomous aesthetics arises in Schools of Art on a regular basis. Regardless of great craftsmanship, students must be able to articulate deeper meanings in their work than entertainment value. So every time I loaded my students and stuff into our vans and waved goodbye to other instructors going inside the art building to teach, I wondered if I was promoting entertainment art, at the expense of teaching something important. On other occasions, the agency alerted the local newspaper to come photograph my students and I at work and I found myself steering them to certain portions of the mural that might be considered more sophisticated-looking. I also worried about the portion of class time spent on the murals. The largest mural I did with a 2D design class of fifteen took 22% of our semester. I even assuaged some guilt by creating a rubric about their mural work, in part because the question “How are we getting graded on this?” came up too many times. But the students evaluated the mural days as their “favorite” project in the opinion surveys they completed in December.

Students Understand the Outer Dynamics of Mural Making
Service learning behooves human interaction and human interaction inevitably includes strain and complications at times. My students seemed to understand the significance of this from these excerpts that I selected from their journals: “Sometimes when I was painting next to someone, I was like, “What are you doing?” because it seemed like they were going beyond the boundaries of what we kind of said we were going to do as a group, but I tried to step way back and see if someone else was also doing that. I might have been the one to have missed the boat.” “The lady that wanted this mural done had picked out photographs of a beach scene and told me I could pick one. In some ways I was flattered and in some ways I was offended. I mean I can copy pictures pretty realistically in paint but I’ve always been taught that this is plagiarism. So I told her I’d have to change it because of copyright issues and she had no problem with that.” “In a small group we painted the cat room at a local animal shelter. There were cats, litter boxes and toys everywhere — we had to work around these things. At first I thought this would be a major waste of time (as if cats cared about their walls!) but when interested adopters started coming in and exclaiming how fresh the painted flowers looked, I understood who the real audience was. If only the flowers would come alive and “fresh scent” that room!” (Individual student mural artist) When I was given complete freedom to do whatever I wanted I floundered for a long time. The agency just wanted something “nice” and “nice” is something I’d never want people to say about my work. Anyhow, I had to find a way to do this so I was encouraged to look deeply into what the organization did and illustrate that. It was a challenge to paint their “philanthropic” missions and I ended up simplifying human gestures and it became abstract but also readable as something positive. It was a great experience for me to have to work this way.”


The arts provide illusionary metaphors and archetypes for human lives and its infinite metaphysical interpretations. Service learning in the arts requires that students synthesize all of their knowledge about what they have experienced as art and recapitulate it (often as a group) onto walls belonging to an entity they must get to know. Whether they end up painting a rose garden or something that amplifies the struggle of the Civil Rights Movement, they must hold firm to the goal and yet be ready to make alterations if the consumer wills it. For me, murals are a metaphor of true learning in terms of engaging with other people, assessing the situation and modifying behaviors to meet their needs. Creating murals in our rural environment did not once have to do with a social issue but ironically the projection of group identity or place escapism — -all in the name of pleasant viewing. My students thus had to really look at the existing aesthetics of the surround and synthesize this with the consumer’s vision. In our age of education we would call such synthesis a key ingredient in the critical thinking we so desire of our students. Erin Tapley is an Associate Professor of art education at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina

Ballengee-Morris, C. Taylor, P. (2004). Service Learning: A Language of “We”. Art Education v 57 n5 P 6–12. Burton, D. (2001). Creating a social context. School Arts, 2 Claus, J. & Ogden, C. (1999).

Service learning for youth empowerment and social change. New York: Peter Lang Publishers. Cruz, N., Giles, D., & Stanton, T. (1999).

Service-learning. SF: Jossey-Bass Inc. Davies, M. Ed. (1992).

Relevance revisited. Curriculum development in the humanities. No 1: Service, learning and individual development. Degelman, C. Ed. (1998) Curriculum, community and the arts.

Service Learning Network, (7), 2. Devitis, J., Johns, R., & Simpson, D. (1998). To serve and learn. New York: Peter Lang Publishing Dewey, J. (1959).

Art as experience. New York: Capricorn Books.

Eisner, E. (2001). Should we create new aims for art education? Art Education, (54) 5, 6–10. Hutzel, K. & Russel, R. (2007) Promoting “Social and Emotional Learning” through Service-Learning Art Projects.

Art Education/ v60 n3 p6–11 2007. Jeffers, C. Spheres of Possibility: Linking Service-Learning and the Visual Arts. By: S. National Art Education Association. 2005.

Taylor. P.G. (2002) Service-learning as postmodern art and pedagogy.

Studies in Art Education 43(2), 124–140. Taylor, P G and Ballengee-Morris, C. (2004) The language of we. Art Education, v57 n5 p6–12.

Appendix A — Grading Rubric for On-Site Mural Making

Day 1 — (12 points) List 3 things you noticed about the space to be painted: List 3 Personal Accomplishments (regarding material properties) or something you learned working in a group or the agency we worked with. Describe how the gr
up went about painting. What was the reason for the color palette chosen? How would you describe our methods of paint application? (12 points)

Day 2 — (12 points) List 3 Personal Accomplishments (regarding material properties) or something you learned working in a group or the agency we worked with. Suggest 3 things for next time to better our efficiency or design look. (12 points)

Day 3 — (12 points) List 3 Personal Accomplishments (regarding material properties) or something you learned working in a group. Predict how this mural will look after 2 more classes. What do you think about the possibility of outsiders adding the finishing touches to the mural (12 points) < Day 4 –(12 points)

You were asked to get some feedback from photographs you showed to a friend or two. What were their comments about the mural?

What do you think should happen to the borders of the mural?

What are 4 things you learned about daily preparation and clean up of the site? (12 points)

Day 5 –(12 points)

List 3 Personal Accomplishments (regarding material properties) or something you learned working in a group

What did you think about the group decision concerning the border?

Now that the mural is nearing completion how do you think it will affect its surrounding? (the building and surrounding community). (12 points)

Day 6 –(12 points)

Compare this mural to the largest individual or collective project you’ve ever done. What are some similarities and differences? (12 points)

Day 7 -(12 points)

Think of an entirely different criteria for the mural than what we used.

List is here .

Then create a close up sketch and distant sketch of your results. (use colored pencil and 12×18″ paper)

We will share these results at the end of our last day of painting?

Day 8 — (12 points)

What are some things one must do in finishing a mural?

Do you think our signatures/signs were adequate-why or why not?

How would you rate your dedication to the mural on a scale of 1–10. Please explain.

Service Learning Reflection Paper

by Alex Sigmon

Overall we’ve had a lot of neat experiences this semester and I had no idea Jackson County had so many agencies that helped people. It made me actually look in the Yellow pages for my own county and I was equally surprised that there’s a lot of human services out there. But our mission was art — to look at places where art could be used to help people or to spruce up a location. I was glad that we did both in this class. Because I’m a people person I probably most liked working with the various people we did.

The little children were awesome and the fact that they don’t receive many outside visitors was sad. I have always found that participating in children’s play is fun and this was no exception, but you could tell that some of these children had been in households that might have been rough on them-they were more prone to fight with one another and to grab things than the other kids in Room A. Once you give these kids some individual attention they seem to be more obedient which tells me a lot about how I can best teach these kids later on. Another people-person excursion we took was the weeks we spent at the old people’s home. I’ve always been wary of these places. To me they’re like terminal hospitals, however when we worked in the cafeteria those that came to us were really full of zeal. It was shocking to learn that some of them were close to one hundred years old and it showed me that positive attitude can do a lot for people.

 Some of the elderlies didn’t want to participate but as Erin said, they might have just lost their spouse or they might be lonely or not feel good. Some of them definitely showed signs of having a stroke or serious Alzheimers because what they were saying seemed to be about another time/place. I really felt for these people and could see that the best care you can really give them is kindness and redirection. When they were able to focus on the art, their confusion was temporarily put to rest and these were great moments. I don’t know about the families of the people there but I’d be very touched by some of the work that they made. It was child-like because they’d really never had art instruction in their lives but it was also a reflection of their long lives. I thought the scrapbook project would do the most for them with their memories but actually when they were painting they were a lot more expressive and talkative. They portrayed things that made them comfortable like an old dog they used to have or the farm where they used to live. They were communicating sentimentality that a photograph can’t do.

I felt in terms of all of our service learning, this population was most appreciative of our presence and efforts. I’m not sure they will remember the techniques we tried to teach them but the great thing about art is that the evidence remains and they can take back to their rooms this memory. Finally, I must address murals as my third favorite service learning adventure. I’ve always loved working on large paintings in a group and it was nice to have the mission set up for us — to recreate the story of Ginger Baby for the kids Christmas activity day. At first, I was skeptical that our decorations would even be noticed but when I went to the event I saw children having their pictures taken in front of our candy house and so on. In fact, if we had not made the number and size of things that we did, the gymnasium would not have had any holiday spirit. One thing, I did feel bad about was that the organizers of this event seemed to want us to stay but we had classes to go to after our class was out.

One thing about service learning is that it seems that human contact time is the thing most requested and yet it’s often the hardest to deliver — especially in a rural area like this where the transportation eats up so much time. I learned in doing the mural that getting organized early can cut down on wasted time and when the whole group knows how to work together great energy is exuded. This did finally happen with us but it took some jostling of leadership. I appreciate that the instructor did not step in because I think we worked things out and if she had it would have been awkward. So the painting was awesome, watching areas get more and more saturated with paint and the scene came alive. It didn’t matter whose drawing it began as — it really was a group effort and had a nice eclectic quality to it because of that. To me, the mural or art in general is evidence of people or a person coming together to make humanity better or at least curious about something. That is a service that takes time and often interpersonal interaction. I’ve learned a lot this semester and would feel confident in the future running some programs such as the ones our instructor set up for us.

Quality of Program
The BSEd program at Western Carolina University is strong in both numbers of declared majors (currently 36) and numbers of graduates (currently 12) who succeed in finding a job as an art teacher within one year of their graduation. In the past three years all students who have gained admission into the Education Program have graduated within six years and more often four years. Western Carolina University BSEd students are reputed in the area and beyond because they are strong in a variety of studio areas as well as pedagogical issues. The new facilities at Western are superb and the art education room itself is equipped with almost everything needed to teach the range of art and craft that the state curricula recommends teaching. Last year, the College of Education and Allied Professions was one of two national winners of the Christa McCauliffe award–so given largely because WCU has one of the most demanding pre-service schedules for its teachers. This means that each student completes about 100 hours of specifically assigned observation/assistance tasks in various public school classrooms. This fosters confidence in their professional decision-making and helps them to understand school — community dynamics. All WCU students must pass the Praxis I test and undergo a formal interview with two faculty members prior to full admission into the program

In the meantime, Art Education majors have opportunities to become involved with the Art Education Club in which they may teach workshops to other WCU students based on their area of expertise. The Art Education club has also sponsored multi-week sessions of art classes for people of all ages for which the students design and teach the curricula. Each year, over 600 pieces of art from the seven Jackson County Schools are exhibited in WCU’s Art Building Hallways and Art Education students sponsor and jury this show. Art education majors have their own juried show in October to stress the need to maintain their artistry even as busy teachers. Along with the general Art student body, art education majors also successfully compete in Spring Juried Show and for competitive yet scant scholarships.

Finally, a crucial strength of the Art Education Program at Western is the consideration of the individual and their ultimate career goals. This implies that great time is taken to get to know students and to encourage their development holistically. For example, some students have student taught abroad because of their international interests. Some students have continued working in art therapy settings because of a field trip all Introduction to Art Education students take. Other students come to us already having a job in art but needing licensure and we work with them to accommodate their schedules and our curricula. Consequently, we have a strong network of teachers in this area that are our own graduates and typically willing and very able to mentor future art teachers.


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