Feature Stories

Radiating Joyful Brilliance

New Mural at Excelsior Elementary Celebrates Community and Connection

This winter, Excelsior Elementary students, teachers and staff members engaged in a community-wide endeavor to create a new mural for the school’s front entryway. The mural represents the combined creative talents of the entire school, which includes more than 800 individuals, from students and teachers to custodial staff, paraprofessionals and parent volunteers, who took part in completing the piece. 

Excelsior leaders and Board member sat the unveiling event

“Many hands and hearts came together to make this possible,” said Jennifer Smasal, Excelsior Elementary Principal. “As the mosaic reflects, each student shines brightly on their own, but together their combined talents radiate joyful brilliance.” The piece is titled “Excelsior Elementary: Watch Us Soar.” 

“This collaborative art project brought our diverse school community together under the guidance of renowned mosaic artist, Lisa Arnold,” explained Smasal. Arnold is a mosaicist and teaching artist from Saint Paul who specializes in community mosaic murals with a nature art theme. Arnold has studied Mandarin and taught art in China, creating a unique connection with Excelsior’s Chinese Immersion classrooms. “During this residency, students learned mosaic vocabulary, techniques and skills while collaborating and creating an artistic legacy of love.” 

A student works on the mural wearing goggles

“When we discussed the project, I explained to students that we are creating a gift for the future,” said Arnold. While facilitating art residencies such as this, Arnold includes written, visual and performance art opportunities. “It's a great way to appeal to many creative facets of the individual students. I like giving them a bunch of different ways to participate, be challenged, make mistakes, succeed and shine.”

The project began in December with poetry workshops in elementary classrooms. Students worked together to write poems about what makes Excelsior such a special place. Arnold then used the poems to create symbols to be included in the mosaic portion of the art project. 

Once the design for the mosaic was created, each class in the school took a turn placing hundreds of “tesserae,” or small pieces of tile and stained glass, into the 4-foot by 10-foot mosaic. “I love the storytelling the work inspires,” said Arnold. “A child may see a coin in one of the flowers [within the mosaic design] is from Hong Kong and proudly announce, ‘My mom was born in Hong Kong!’” Arnold shared that during the creation process, many students and teachers discussed trips to China and the times they had seen pandas or the varying flowers that became part of the final mosaic design.

“When teachers came in to glue down a piece, the students would always cheer for the teacher,” said Arnold. “It was really heartwarming to see them get excited to share in the work together.”

The mosaic was unveiled to the community on Wednesday, January 31 during a ceremony that included a reading of a student’s poem, as well as words of gratitude for the many individuals who made the project possible. 

Teachers add pieces to the mural in an art room

“I want to thank our PTO for its generous financial contribution that funded this endeavor. Without you, this would not have become a reality,” said Smasal at the unveiling. “I also want to recognize [Excelsior community member] Sam Chase, who has dedicated 25 years as a school volunteer and shared his time and financial resources for projects just like this one.”

Smasal also thanked Excelsior Elementary art teacher Katy Friends for her enthusiasm, guidance and support through every step of the project. 

“I hope the mosaic inspires everyone,” said Arnold. “It's so impressive what kids can do. I hope it reminds people of the power of art and the importance of collaboration, and I hope it encourages storytelling. I hope people find parts of themselves in it. I hope it makes people wonder what children are capable of, and I hope it makes people wonder what more they themselves are capable of.”

Girls smiling

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