Bristol sixth-graders put stamp on school, from home

For 27 years Bristol Elementary art teacher Deb Rickner has helped each of her sixth-grade students paint one cinderblock of the school's walls. This spring, because of the pandemic, she found a way for students to participate in the project from home. Independent photo/Christopher Ross.

BRISTOL — For nearly three decades, under the guidance of art teacher Deb Rickner, each graduating sixth-grader at Bristol Elementary School (BES) has created a personal design and painted it onto one cinderblock of the building’s interior.
“The project must be about the kids, personally, like putting their stamp on the school,” Rickner told the Independent in a recent interview.
Rickner’s students’ first canvas was the school cafeteria, where over the years successive classes of sixth-graders filled up every block that was safe to paint. In 2002 the project shifted to the hallways of the 5/6 wing.
“It’s like a rite of passage,” said Kari Bouvier Jipner, a member of the first class to participate in the project. She is now a second-grade teacher at the school. “You look forward to making your mark. No matter who you are as a student you still get a block. This is a part of being at BES.”
Today more than 1,000 paintings grace the walls of the school — an extraordinary display of creativity and aspiration.
Soon, the 37 students who make up the BES class of 2020 will add to that number. But unlike their predecessors, who painted directly onto the walls, they’ve had to work from home.
Rickner’s students had just finished their designs this winter when Vermont public school buildings were closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Undaunted, Rickner developed a plan for students to complete their projects from home.
She bought a sheet of hardboard, which her husband, Mark, cut into cinderblock-size pieces. She poured several different paint colors into more than 300 paper coffee cups, which had been donated, along with four-cup cardboard carriers, by McDonald’s restaurants in Winooski and Middlebury. Then she arranged for students to pick up their supplies from the art room and gave them a deadline of June 5.
Still, Rickner regrets not being able to guide them in person.
“The hardest part about coordinating this project during the pandemic is not being able to actually teach,” she said. “I make a video lesson, then I see the final result of their work. I really miss the teaching in between. I can’t help students make adjustments as they go or get them to rethink design elements that might not be working out.”
Rickner and her students haven’t yet decided where the class of 2020 paintings will go, but eventually they will get permanently attached to one of the school’s walls.
Sixth-grader Genevieve Forand finished her painting this past weekend.
“It was pretty fun,” she said, adding that she appreciated having the flexibility to spend more time working on it at home.
Forand, who wants to be a marine biologist, kept her design simple.
“I painted three jellyfish with my name and ‘2020.’”
Fellow sixth-grader Liam Lazare painted a scene from Barbados, where he lived until a few years ago.
Meanwhile, Jack Frizzell painted three chess pieces against a sports field background.
And Jacoby Senecal painted a scene from outer space, taking after his dad, Matt, who years ago created a Star Wars-themed block.
At the 2019 sixth-grade promotion day, then-Principal Kevin Robinson asked the audience members to raise their hands if they, too, had painted a block on the wall.
“I was blown away by the number of hands that went up,” Rickner said. “Parents, aunts and uncles, cousins.”
Jipner was one of them.
She and her daughter, Mackenzie Griner, who painted a block last year, met up with their former art teacher during a recent visit to the school.
“That totally represents me, though I don’t love it,” Jipner said.
“I wish I could go back and do it again,” she added, laughing. “But my second-graders love it, and that’s all that matters.”
Jipner’s cousins Cullen and Andrew also painted blocks in 1994, and work by her husband and brother can be found on these walls.
When it came time for Mackenzie to paint her block, Jipner encouraged her to think carefully about her design.
“You want to make sure it represents you and that you’re not going to regret it later,” she said.
Mackenzie started planning her block while she was still in fifth grade, but in the end went with a totally different design.
The final product features a painting of the Green Mountain State, along with symbols of the things she loves — a basketball (Jipner, who was a 1,000-point scorer in high school, used to coach her team); a soccer ball; a music note (Mackenzie plays the trumpet); and a Georgia peach, which represents her birthplace.
The block also shares an element in common with several of Mackenzie’s classmates: a painting of a rock inspired by an inside joke from when they were in fifth grade.
In a few years, Mackenzie’s two younger siblings will be gearing up to make their make their mark on the school, as well.
“Deb is not allowed to retire until my daughter in kindergarten gets her block,” Jipner said.
Rickner, who has been teaching at BES since 1991, laughed — then sized up a wall near the front entrance of the school, calculating how many student-painted blocks could fit there in the future, if need be.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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