Art project is a continuous work in progress

Union County Teacher of the Year looks to share grant project

Seventh-graders will often work alongside high school seniors at the ongoing mural project at Kenilworth’s David Brearley Middle High School. The project is run by the Union County Teacher of the Year with help from an art grant.
Seventh-graders will often work alongside high school seniors at the ongoing mural project at Kenilworth’s David Brearley Middle High School. The project is run by the Union County Teacher of the Year with help from an art grant.

KENILWORTH, NJ — Resting at one end of David Brearley Middle-High School, where there used to be patches of dead grass, is a serene pond and garden, built in the memory of a former student. Elsewhere on school grounds there’s a freshly finished greenhouse, which doubles as an outdoor classroom for science teachers. It’s a space, according to art teacher Janice Marsili, where students can learn about plant life, like techniques used in hybridization

The inside of the school has been similarly transformed, with some hallways being turned into bright, colorful mosaics. All of these art projects, which are student-made, have been possible because of state-sponsored, Arts-in-Education Residency Grants, said Marsili, who has been writing these grants for the past eight years.

In that time, added Marsili, thousands of her students have contributed to the changes at David Brearley Middle-High School, during art class and on their own time.

“Kids who are, maybe, not the most academic, get a chance to show what they can do. The seventh graders are working right alongside the seniors, which is a great experience for them,” said Marsili. “They form a lot of bonds that they wouldn’t otherwise form, and it really does integrate all of the classes.”
And that’s why Marsili is the 2015 Union County Teacher of the Year, an honor that reflects on the entire Kenilworth School District, she said. The work behind these art projects has been a community-wide effort, and allows students and teachers alike to find a creative outlet, said Marsili.

“Right now, with the way education is, the teachers that have academic courses are really busy. They’re teaching for the test. They have a lot of standards to live up to, and they don’t have a lot of time to deviate or be creative,” said Marsili. “I’m not tested. And I can ask teachers to come down into my classroom, share what they know, and then they can go back and we do the work.”

That’s the idea behind the residency grants, which Marsili believes more schools should try to implement.
No money is given in the grants, which are handled by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. Instead, schools have the opportunity to work with an artist for up to 20 sessions, said Marsili, to create something unique to that township.

David Brearley Middle-High School, for example, now features multiple tributes to people around the community, including students’ grandparents, who were the subject of a bench with mosaicked towers.

“That’s what’s great about Kenilworth, really. It is a very tight-knit community. The theme of our bench was grandparents, because a lot of those kids, their grandparents live with them,” said Marsili. “Each student made a tile that reminded them of their grandparents, with a saying, either something their grandparents said or that reminded them of their grandparents. There were some really amazing things, like ‘my grandfather came to this country with $10 in his pocket,’ or ‘he taught himself how to read by watching Sesame Street.’”

The students are in charge of designing the projects, according to Marsili, as well as creating the final product, with the help of the residency artist and staff. That involves using a host of materials to create the projects, and learning how to put everything together during the process, including from the visiting artist.

“When we were making the garden, the resident artist had architectural training and an amateur carpenter. So she helped the kids measure the courtyard, and she taught them how to triangulate the measurements, and figure out where to place the trees so there’s heat and sun on the right times of the day,” said Marsili. “They learned a lot. That’s what’s great about bringing in somebody from the outside, and bringing in your teachers.”

This year was Marsili’s last as a grant writer, she said. But as the Union County Teacher of the Year, she wants to spread awareness about these kinds of projects, which offer a creative outlet to students who might not otherwise have such opportunities.

“A lot of former students still live around town, a lot of them come back, and enjoy what we’ve done,” said Marsili. “And I think it’s very important to represent the kids, not just the most academic but representing all different traits, so they can show what they can do.”