The ode to diversity stretches 15 feet into the air, collections of wild animals, vehicles, instruments and seasonal artscapes demonstrating how differences bring color to students’ lives.

The new mural outside Lafayette Elementary School in Lancaster was a project three years in the making, with students helping collect the $40,000 needed to repair and beautify a massive retaining wall and completing much of the artwork themselves.

On July 26, artist and muralist Ophelia Chambliss joined Lafayette Principal Wanda Suarez and 15 teachers to assemble the first stage. Some applied a high-quality, clear-drying art glue, while others worked quickly to smooth out any wrinkles.

The public display includes several panels made on parachute silks, a movable canvas that third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade students worked on in their art classes through last school year. Chambliss crafted other panels using students’ paintings as her inspiration.

Unique perspectives

Suarez says her favorite element is a series of five vertical panels with still-life paintings of the same vase, flowers and fruit. Each one represents a different student’s interpretation.

“It’s so personal to us,” Suarez says. “Each one is beautiful. There’s something to be said for different perspectives. We can see things differently, but each view has something to add.”

The mural covers the center of a concrete wall that runs along the school’s eastern boundary. It had been something of an eyesore after the school was renovated in 2011 to incorporate sleek glass elements near its traditional brick entrance.

Suarez says the project was the brainchild of Sally Jarvis, a Willow Valley volunteer who “thought the kids deserved better.” A committee raised money for the wall’s restoration through Lancaster County Community Foundation, Lancaster Education Foundation, local businesses and school families.

What it means

At a back-to-school night, families selected the theme of diversity. The creative work initially fell to art teacher Vince Baker, whose students completed the first panel showcasing musical instruments from around the world.

When he retired, first-year art teacher Wesley Blymire stepped in to guide students through the panels on transportation and animals native to Pennsylvania. Both men attended the installation.

Each panel has elements that hold special significance for Lafayette students. Chambliss painted the final animal panel following students’ suggestions; her mountain lion is a stand-in for the school’s Leo the Lion mascot.

On the transportation panel, every road and company name drawn on the side of a truck takes its name from a Lafayette student. There’s even a ladder truck from Fire Company 2, the same company that visits the school each year to talk about fire safety.

Jodi Charles teaches English as a second language. She says her students enjoyed working on the pieces during the last school year. For fifth-grader Ler Shee, the project was a learning opportunity.

“It helped her with her English acquisition,” Charles says. “And it gave her another route for expressing herself (other) than just using words.”

Though she’ll be in middle school this year, Suarez points out Shee’s younger sibling will still see the mural every day while on the playground.

The mural is also visible from nearby playing fields and is intended to be community art. Suarez says Chambliss will return after the murals cure to add a permanent top coat, nails and wires that create a gallery look.

“In future years, there’s the possibility that we can extend the mural,” Suarez says.

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