By Allison Nanni, freelance writer for the Office of Public Affairs at the University of Notre Dame
On a sunny South Bend afternoon, the principal at Perley Fine Arts Academy smiles as she gestures toward the colorful plywood murals mounted on the building’s exterior walls. As a former Perley student and teacher herself, Darice Austin-Phillips takes pride in the representation of each classroom’s vision of the school. “The paintings show we are a family of artists, playful and respectful of others.”
Austin-Phillips recounts the shock she experienced earlier in the semester when approaching the school from a different direction on the drive to work: “I couldn’t believe that’s what our school looked like!” With the construction work on State Road 23 near the building’s entrance, trees and homes that had previously surrounded the site were razed. Austin-Phillips continues, “I thought, ‘We’ve got to do something to enhance the outside of the building and show what goes on inside.’ Creating and displaying art was a natural choice.”
University of Notre Dame student-athletes collaborated with Perley students in the creation of the murals from conception to installation. Members of the University’s track team arrived to learn from the elementary students about their school. Creative writing facilitated the initial discussions about the murals’ central themes and elements. Once the elementary students drafted illustrations to represent their initial written work, Perley’s parent-teacher organization president and mural co-planner, Kathleen Staton-Neubauer, scanned the images into a computer to be enlarged and traced. Both Notre Dame students and Perley families then worked alongside one another in the school’s gymnasium on Sunday afternoons for painting sessions during the spring.
The University-elementary school partnership began in 2008 with the “Read to a Child” program. Sarah Smith, program coordinator for the University’s office of student welfare and development, has worked with Perley on a number of initiatives over the years. “We are always looking for ways to collaborate with the fine arts academy. It is always a great experience for all involved,” Smith said.
Richard Threet, Perley’s fine arts facilitator, explained that some of the Notre Dame volunteers, who did not have a lot of experience in the arts, hesitated when walking into the arts academy for the first time. However, after a couple of hours of discussing content and preparing the mural surfaces in the school gymnasium together, the elementary and college students discovered they had a lot in common.
“Our students see Notre Dame student-athletes as heroes. However, that notion was turned upside down with this partnership,” says Threet. “The University students saw our children moving full speed ahead. Our children approach art with the same intensity that the University students have when attacking their own studies and respective sports.”
At the ribbon-cutting and installation ceremony, Threet described the content of the murals: “This is what our students want to communicate to the broader community. This art not only demonstrates who we are, but who we want to be. What happens inside the walls of this small school at Perley is nothing small.”