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How Fairmont High School art teachers foster self-expression across campus

Dirty lockers with chipped paint have become a canvas for Fairmont High School’s art students. The hallways are lined with brightly painted lockers that showcase the students’ and teachers’ favorite books, movies, and music albums.

In 2020, before COVID-19 made schools move to virtual learning, Fairmont High School art teacher Steven Taylor asked students in his Advanced Placement class to brainstorm an idea for the lockers.

He started with the question: “Well, what does it look like?”

This led students to the concept of a bookshelf. The bottom shelves act as traditional reference books, while the top shelves come alive with colorful book spines. Featured texts include classics like “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Charlotte’s Web,” but also more recent favorites like “Harry Potter” and “The Hunger Games.

After virtual learning left students feeling disconnected, this art project and others like it have provided an opportunity for self-expression and connection.

Taylor says that this project highlights students’ art styles. Cheyenne McNeill/EducationNC

Taylor said not only has the project allowed students to be creative, but it has also stirred up conversations.

“Some of them said, ‘What’s this book about?’ or ‘What is this like?’” he said. “We tried to cross that gap between stuff I thought was important and stuff they would think is important.”

From there, Taylor and his students were inspired to do more on their corner of campus.

The previous art teacher at the school drew several large squares on a wall in the classroom. After completing their first set of lockers, Taylor and his students began to brainstorm how these squares could be transformed into an art project. They decided on a “character select” look, similar to what is seen in video games like Mario Kart.

Taylor said choosing this subject led to an art lesson he never anticipated.

Senior Katlyn Tyler has painted several characters on the “character select” wall in Taylor’s classroom. Cheyenne McNeill/EducationNC

“We started doing anime and cartoon characters. You have to learn Van Gogh, you have to learn from the past, but the art these kids see today is that and they all want to draw that,” Taylor said.

Exploring different kinds of art allowed the students at Fairmont High School to have a sense of solidarity with their school.

Because of COVID-19, several of the seniors in his classes didn’t get to finish their projects, so they returned to the school over the summer to complete their pieces.

“The seniors that were in the middle of squares and doing other things actually came back. I had two or three that came back during summer school,” Taylor said. “They were graduating and going into college, but they felt strongly about finishing.”

Students use reference photos to help as they paint lockers and squares. Cheyenne McNeill/EducationNC

Others called back and asked how the project was going, if squares and lockers were completed, and asked what books and characters were being added to the project. For Taylor, this made it all worthwhile.

“So it’s just like a big interesting school beautification thing, and then I try to synergize that with all my classes. It started off with something very little, and now it’s gotten really big,” Taylor said.

Taylor’s class isn’t alone in its endeavor to beautify the school. Krista Rachels joined the Fairmont High School faculty in 2019 when it absorbed South Robeson High School.

Rachels saw the impact of these large projects and began to incorporate them into her classroom. She recently joined up with the theater teacher to create lockers designed to look like playbills.

Rachels’ classes are just beginning the process of painting lockers outside of the school’s theater classroom. Cheyenne McNeill/EducationNC

Rachels said these projects allow students to feel connected to Fairmont High School, something she said is especially important since the school absorption and the start of the pandemic.

“We have seen so many social and emotional changes with these students,” Rachels said.

When the schools merged, Rachel said there was tension between students from the different schools. She thinks that being able to come and be a part of an art program like this has allowed some of that tension to dissipate.

Taylor’s students painted this motto on the gym doors at Fairmont High School. Cheyenne McNeill/EducationNC

Taylor and Rachels’ art classes contribute all across campus. Rachels’ class paints the football field, while students in Taylor’s class design posters for clubs and athletic teams. Art students at Fairmont High School have also painted murals in other teachers’ classrooms when asked.

The art teachers say students from each grade find ownership and a sense of pride in their school and artwork. Now, these projects have turned into something teachers and students across campus look forward to seeing progress on and are excited to incorporate into their classrooms.

“My favorite thing about the art projects that we’ve done here is the expression that we’re able to show,” said Fairmont High School senior Katlyn Tyler. “Every student has a different art style and characters that they love. They are able to show things that they enjoy and I think that’s something that’s really unique here.”

For Taylor, these huge projects are a way to spotlight some of the more shy students in his classes.

“One of my goals is to give kids a platform,” Taylor said. “So it’s that kind of vehicle for them to be seen and also to find a safe space to do that.”

Cheyenne McNeill

Cheyenne McNeill is a regional reporter for EdNC.