Kids Color the Walls With Imagination
Mural to Adorn Renovated Glebe Elementary
By Leef Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 24, 2004; Page VA16
The ceramic tiles are being packed in boxes, carefully stacked between sheets of tissue, for their ride to Cheverly and an eight-hour bake in an electric kiln, when Tom O'Reilly spies a problem.
"Is this tile 156 or 159?" the puzzled parent asks.
O'Reilly is one of dozens of volunteers who have spent countless days helping students at Arlington's Glebe Elementary School assemble, paint and pack 2,700 hand-glazed tiles. Next fall, the six-inch-square pieces will be put together to form a two-story mosaic mural dubbed "The Big Picture" and installed inside the newly remodeled school on Glebe Road.
Officials describe the bold, permanent art installation as one of the most ambitious art project ever undertaken by Arlington County public school students.
Nearly all of Glebe's 300 or so students -- pre-kindergarten through fifth grade, plus special education -- have participated in the project, first by submitting drawings that were melded together into a cohesive design by art teacher Stacey Lewis and then tackling the weeks-long process of glazing.
With a project this size, every move is choreographed and mapped.
Having spent seven weeks working on the mural, O'Reilly knew just what to do with the mystery tile he had found. First, he checked it against a gigantic color-coded master list affixed to the classroom wall. Then he compared his findings to a scaled schematic depicting each individual piece of the mosaic.
In his hand, he decided, was either a piece of panda or a swath of green background. After a quick consult with Lewis, the errant tile was renumbered (its number had been wiped off during the cleaning process) and stored in a box with its terracotta brethren.
"This is exactly what can happen," explained expert ceramist Alfredo Ratinoff, a paid consultant on the project whose clients include notables from Hollywood and national corporations. He has 37 murals to his credit, several of them at schools.
These days, the native Argentinean has been knee-deep in grade-schoolers, showing them the correct way to apply glaze and laughing at the inevitable slips. He will spend the summer baking the tiles. His kiln can hold only 60 tiles at a time. Its temperature rises to 1,891 degrees and has to be watched "like a baby," he said. Later a professional company will be brought in to install the mural, which, Ratinoff says, will suffer the inevitable breaks and cracks.
"Broken tiles are a good" omen, he said, beaming, his fingers white with a low-fire opaque glaze.
The mural was born from a need to decorate a large wall in the renovated school building, which is expected to open late fall or early winter. Students have been attending school in an alternative facility in Rosslyn.
The final cost of the mural has not been calculated,but school officials estimate it will cost at least $21,000 -- including $9,000 for installation, $3,000 for firing, $5,000 for Ratinoff's expertise and $4,000 for the tiles and glazes.
Officials said about $12,500 was donated by parents and local businesses, with the county contributing $7,500 and the PTA about $2,500.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Under the watchful eye of ceramist and consultant Alfredo Ratinoff, Glebe Elementary students Nick Hallowell, 11, left, Erin Hogans, 11, and Cynthia Amerson, 11, add color to "The Big Picture."
(Larry Morris -- The Washington Post)