A piece of artwork that a wide cross-section of the Vermillion community helped create – including students at Austin Elementary School – is now hanging on an outside wall of the school where kids who attend the school can see it every day while out on the school’s playground during recess.
Brianna Olson, a graphic design and marketing student at the University of South Dakota, described to members of the Vermillion School Board Monday about process that was undertaken to make the mural a reality.
“She came to Mr. Alvey (superintendent of the Vermillion School District) and me this summer regarding a proposal for an art project in this community,” Principal Kim Johnson told the school board. “She secured a grant for that and the process of involving the community.”
Board members first saw a sketch of the proposed design of the mural last August.
A past experience with creating a mural in Vermillion inspired this second mural for Austin Elementary.
Olson said her painting professor helped with the efforts to paint the mural that now adorns the exterior of the Coyote Twin Theatre in downtown Vermillion.
“My painting professor led that and I really enjoyed the process of working with community and she encouraged me to pursue a project on my own with a similar type of style of working with the community and combining public art in that way,” she said.
Olson secured a grant through a graphic design group last spring to help fund the creation of the mural. “The grant basically was for a project that you can do to make your community better,” she told the Vermillion School Board. “This was a perfect opportunity to do another mural project. So I took that up and I connected with Phyllis (Packard) with the Vermillion Area Arts Council and she let me work with the Messy Hands Art Camp.
“Over the course of a few weeks in July, I met with kids from ages 5 all the way up to 16 and we did various projects to come up with different designs,” Olson said. “Their ideas ranged from a dinosaur playground and wanting to do school supplies in the shape of a waterfall, but the reoccurring theme that they came up with is what makes Vermillion a special place to live. They really wanted to represent visually their favorite things about living in Vermillion.”
Since the design process took place during the summer months, it’s no surprise that the mural captures summertime activities available in the Vermillion community.
“It was really cool to see the kids work together. Once I gave them the prompts, they really didn't want my help any longer,” she said. “They were like 'we've got this, we're going to come up with ideas' and they really thought about layouts in a really smart way and how the design would lay across three panels.
“I worked with the kids a lot looking at different designs of what mural could look like and luckily enough for me, the style that really resonated with them was a very graphic, color-blocked, illustrative, almost like a children's book type of design,” Olson said, “which is exactly what I kind of do as a graphic designer.”
The mural features nine sections and in each section is illustrated something the kids believe makes Vermillion a unique place.
Featured, Olson said, is the lazy river at Prentis Plunge, the Missouri River, arts, sports and parks.
“All sorts of different things are represented,” she said. “Once the design process was over with, the real work began. I outlined the mural with a projector and we painted it at the community celebration that was at the high school. I think 400-plus people came which was an attendance we didn't expect, so it was amazing to have that many hands working on the mural.
“I didn't know I was going to have that many kids to help me. They covered so much ground – it was unbelievable,” Olson said. “I've never seen 3-year-olds work so precisely with a paint brush. I had parents come up and say, 'I've never seen my kid care about something for so long.'”
Olson limited the mural to six colors in part as a way to keep control of a situation in which hundreds of hands, big and small were painting.
“We had a great perimeter around the mural and we found out after a while that laying the panels down on the ground probably wasn't the best idea. We had some footprints that went across and added to the design,” she said, laughing. “The six colors worked out really great because we were able to direct kids who had grabbed a certain color of paint to work on the right portion of the mural. There were kids that were part of the Messy Hands Art Camp that also got to help with the actual painting of the mural. They were so excited; they could recognize the different themes within the mural that they came up with.”
After the young kids gave their artistic input to the mural, Olson finished the piece by adding finer details.
“It was a lot of detail work, deciding what to refine, what to keep the integrity of – that was important to me to show some of the mark-making that the kids actually did, so within the light green and the darker green sections you can see the brush strokes of the kids really defined,” she said.
A professor at USD allowed Olson to use some space in an art studio so she could complete this final step in the process of creating the mural.
“It was a really amazing opportunity and if I didn't have some amazing connections in the community,” she said, “I don’t think that I could have pulled something off like this as a student and someone who is working during the summer and doing a lot of different things.”
“I think it's been a great process,” Superintendent Damon Alvey said. “Thanks for including us in it. In the beginning, we didn't know what it would look like and I thought the actual theme of the whole mural is what is really unique.
“The kids will see that for years to come on that playground with things about Vermillion that are special, which is really neat,” he said. “Thanks for inviting us to be part of it.”