Local artist helps Middlebury school showcase its vision

MIDDLEBURY ARTIST AND parent Michael Kin has just completed a large mural that adorns one of the exterior facades at Mary Hogan Elementary School. The illustrations were inspired by student input and are a colorful representation of the school’s values. Independent photo/Steve James.

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury resident, parent and freelance artist Michael Kin has been called an illustrator, painter and even a drawer.

He created a new definition for himself for his latest artistic project, a mural at Middlebury’s Mary Hogan Elementary School: A blender.

He equated the mural to a milkshake and told the students, “I’m the blender” that would mix their ideas into an enduring artistic rendering that would show the community what the Mary Hogan School community is made of.

You can now see the just-completed, 900-square-foot mural on the exterior wall of the Mary Hogan building that fronts the playground.

Kin is super-satisfied with how it turned out.

“I feel like it’s the perfect setup,” he said on Monday, just before applying the final paint strokes to the colorful compendium of rockets, suns, animals and more. “It’s like what is up there is supposed to be up there.”

The thirst for a major Mary Hogan mural goes back a long way, according to Kin, whose talents first captured the imagination of many Addison County residents while he was artistic director at Aqua ViTea, a Middlebury-based manufacturer of Kombucha.

“Random parents have been talking to me for years about doing a mural,” he said.

Kin formally pitched the idea a few years ago at a Middlebury Elementary School Association meeting.

“I proposed it and everyone at the meeting said, ‘Wow, that sounds amazing,’” he recalled. “As soon as I could see people were interested, the (creative) wheels started turning. And I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be so much cooler if it wasn’t just me out there randomly doing a mural? How do we get students involved?’”

Mary Hogan Elementary Principal Jen Kravitz and art teacher Alyce Schermerhorn proved incredibly receptive to allowing the school’s 380 students to become part of the creative process. The Mary Hogan mural idea gained even more momentum following input from Claire Tebbs, a local educator in art-based placemaking and community design and mom to a Mary Hogan student.

Independent photo/Steve James

Sadly, forces beyond the school’s control conspired to delay the mural project. The coronavirus pandemic slapped a lid on the paint can — and classes — just two days after the school held an assembly to launch the public art project.

But good ideas have a long shelf life, and the Mary Hogan mural idea gained new life last fall. Organizers searched for a theme for the mural, and they quickly found it: The 102-year-old “core values” of Mary Hogan School, which are “belonging, connections, growth and respect.”

Four noble directives, but how does one represent them visually?

That was part of the fun.

“It provided incredibly rich discussion about the values and what they mean to us as a community,” Schermerhorn said, noting the children learned a lot about the diverse ingredients of a community.

Students began mapping out ideas they thought would fit into the mural.

“Those pieces of artwork would become the inspiration for Michael to draw upon to create his final piece,” Schermerhorn explained. “It was interesting to me, as an art teacher for all these years, to have seen how the students tackled (the assignment) and come up with the images they came up with,” Schermerhorn said.

Kin ended up with more than 300 pieces of K-5 student art to survey, including whimsical renditions of spaceships, rainbows, the sun, various animals and peace signs. Children brainstormed ideas with Kin during his frequent visits to the school.

He digested the students’ drawings over the course of a week, letting their ideas flow through him to see what came out.

Kin had no end goal nor firm idea of the mural’s features until shortly before putting his brush to bricks-and-mortar canvass this past summer. He started priming the surface in July, completed the initial sketch work in August and began applying paint to the wall on the first day of school.

“It was a huge leap of faith for Jen, Alyce and the whole school,” Kin acknowledged. “It’s not like I came in and said, ‘This is the mural I want to do.’ It was, ‘Here is the process we can go through.’”

Kin had earned his stripes this past March by creating a smaller mural on a portion of one of the school’s hallways. He’d been healing from a knee operation and was excited to provide the school with a wonderful preview representation of what he could do on the outside of the building.

“Part of it was me just testing the vibe,” he said.

That interior mural was Kin’s gift to the school in recognition of how hard teachers and students persevered during the pandemic. The students enjoyed viewing the mural as a work-in-progress, providing Kin with positive reinforcement and respectful feedback.

“It was a magical decision,” he said of the initial mural. “The energy… it created in the school was beyond anything I could have guessed.”

It was also an appetizer to the main course of the exterior mural. He synthesized the guidance from students and committed to a couple of creative strategies: The use of only six different colors, and fashioning the mural into segments, each conveying one or more of the school’s core values.

One portion of the mural features what Kin calls a “peace crab,” its segmented body fashioned in a peace symbol, with protruding, colorful legs resembling rainbows.

Independent photo/Steve James

There’s a row of flowers, each adorned with a letter that collectively spell out “growth,” which the young students are doing emotionally, physically and intellectually at their school.

A rocket ship bearing two smiley faces and propelled by red and orange flames soars to the great heights that students are trying to attain through their studies.

The words “respect,” “cooperation” and “connection” are colorfully represented, along with an overarching message of “You belong here” above the school building doorway leading to and from the playground. Two smiling bees provide a visual cue for “bee”-long.

“I didn’t want it to be a literal wall that was telling you ‘These are the important things,’” Kin said. “I wanted it to be a space where people could come and get out of the mural what they wanted to get out of it, rather than me being didactic.”

Seeing something is at times not enough for children; they also like to touch, or experience what they’re seeing. But this thankfully wasn’t the case with the mural.

“They cared for the piece,” Schermerhorn said. “It was really encouraging to see their emotional investment to make sure (the mural) went well and it was cared for.”

The $10,000 cost of the exterior mural is being paid through a combination of three sources: The Vermont Arts Council, the Addison Central Educational Endowment Fund and Mary Hogan’s McGilton Fund.

“It’s this wonderful first step in thinking about reimagining the spaces outside our school,” Kravitz said of the project.

The mural is gaining fans beyond those who study and work at Mary Hogan School. Folks jogging or walking their dogs on or near Court Street and Mary Hogan Drive have been doing double-takes these days.

“I can’t tell you the number of people who are so excited that this is happening,” Kin said.

Sharing in the excitement are Mary Hogan third-graders Logan Emilio and Elise Mical.

Logan’s favorite parts of the mural are a nifty chicken and giant pencils. Elise likes the rocket ship.

Logan is hoping Kin returns to work his magic on another surface of the school property.

“I wish he could paint the blacktop,” he said.

John Flowers is at [email protected].

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