Lincoln school wall becomes a canvas for artists

LINCOLN — Though the Muses will have plenty of chances over the coming year to descend upon the Lincoln Community School, the art that is now emerging there will require more than inspiration; it will require hundreds of hours of sweat and labor.
That and about 30,000 pieces of tile, glass and stone.
Led by art teacher Nancy McClaran, Lincoln students and community members are covering both sides of a 128-square-foot concrete wall outside the school with giant mosaics, which they hope to complete by June 2019. McClaran has created basic designs for the project — a nighttime motif on one side, daytime on the other — but she said a key component of the process will be “letting go.”
“When you make a drawing of something, it’s easy to get attached to it,” she said. “But as soon as you start working on the mosaic, it becomes its own thing. It’s about being open to what happens.”
It’s also about being open to whoever shows up to help — and teaching them the process. Not only has McClaran integrated mosaic work into the LCS art curriculum, but she’s also organizing workdays throughout the summer, drawing kids from Lincoln Sports and STEAM Vermont summer camps, and adults from all over the community.
Lincoln Town Clerk Sally Ober, who helped out at one recent workday, was intimidated by the process at first, but once she got going she was hooked.
“It’s really fun digging through so many different pieces of material, imagining how they might fit into an image and cutting or snipping them to change their shapes as needed,” Ober said. “The beautiful thing is that everyone will have given something different to it. It might be a star, a piece of the mountains, a creature, a flower or tree, or a part of the river. In the end we will all own the accomplishment together.”
McClaran found early inspiration for the project in the work of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, whose legacy includes not only the legendary Sagrada Família cathedral in Barcelona but also pioneering work in outdoor mosaic techniques. But would techniques developed in a Mediterranean climate transfer to the Green Mountains?
Enter artist Kate Hartley, who leads the North Creek Mosaic Project in upstate New York and is creating the very same kind of mural McClaran had been envisioning. The North Creek mosaic will cover a series of concrete walls that line that town’s Main Street. Upon completion, the project will have spanned more than a decade. Hartley’s application method allows people to create their own pieces of the mural offsite — in classrooms, libraries, preschools — which are then combined section by section to create a unified whole.
In addition to Hartley’s work, McClaran was also inspired by discussions about how to engage communities in large-scale art projects, and it was with that in mind last year that she applied for — and was awarded — a $14,904 Animating Infrastructure Grant from the Vermont Arts Council. The funding allowed McClaran to engage Hartley as an “artist consultant” to provide three half-day training sessions on mosaic technique, planning and design.
“I taught Nancy some of the technical aspects, like making sure young artists don’t use too much glue,” Hartley said. “I also showed her some ‘tricks’ that local contractors from my community had taught me, in dealing with mortar and varieties of tiles, stones and glass.”
On Hartley’s third visit, this past May, the first tiles were applied to the wall.
“This is a time of much polarization nationally and globally,” McClaran wrote in her grant application. “It’s critically important to engage our community in practices that emphasize our common bonds. In this project, community members of all ages, political views, religious affiliations and socioeconomic backgrounds will roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty together for the shared purpose of creating beauty.”
Even in the middle of a blistering heat wave. As temperatures reached the mid-90s last week — too hot, they decided, for a children’s workday — McClaran and a friend, Sandra Murphy (who helped McClaran write the grant application), hunched over buckets, wielding sponges and scrapers, soaking the wall with water, applying cement, pressing tile.
Inside the art room, dozens of smaller sections of the mosaic — each arranged and glued to a special mesh material — awaited application: a colorful section composed by LCS library/instructional assistant Maureen Rotax; sections of river designed by preschoolers after they had danced like the river and painted watercolors of it. Along the wall lay box after box of materials: colorful glass to be cut by hand into whatever shapes are needed, large tiles that hammers will reduce in completely unpredictable ways.
“It feels a little like putting a puzzle together without a box top image to look at,” Ober said.
McClaran has lived in Lincoln for more than 25 years and began teaching at LCS in 2002. Every year she guides students on outdoor art projects inspired by the work of environmental sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, who is famous for his arrangements of leaves, flowers, stones and other found natural materials. The intimate relationships she and her students develop with the natural world have deeply informed and inspired the content of the mosaic.
It will take more than a year to cover the entire wall (tiles cannot be applied in winter weather), but McClaran plans to document the entire process. A year from now, as Lincoln celebrates the completed mosaic, videos and photographs taken along the way will show not only how a work of art got made but also the gathering, dispersal and return of communities within communities — proof that, in Andy Goldsworthy’s words, “Some sculptures need the movement of people around them to work.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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