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Easthampton High students, alumni use graffiti art to say goodbye to school

  • Easthampton High School sophomore Marisa Dineen paints the words "Don't let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game" in the hallway of the school on Tuesday. Students in art teacher Jimmy Ilson's class have been stenciling messages - quotes, song lyrics or thoughts of their own - throughout the school as a way to say goodbye to the old building which will be demolished when the new high school building next door is open.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Easthampton High School sophomore Marisa Dineen paints the words "Don't let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game" in the hallway of the school on Tuesday. Students in art teacher Jimmy Ilson's class have been stenciling messages - quotes, song lyrics or thoughts of their own - throughout the school as a way to say goodbye to the old building which will be demolished when the new high school building next door is open.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Students in Easthampton High School art teacher Jimmy Ilson's class reversed their stencils to place a message of thanks on a window visible to the crews constructing the new high school building next door. The class has been stenciling messages - quotes, song lyrics or thoughts of their own - throughout the old school as a way to say goodbye to the building which will be demolished.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Students in Easthampton High School art teacher Jimmy Ilson's class reversed their stencils to place a message of thanks on a window visible to the crews constructing the new high school building next door. The class has been stenciling messages - quotes, song lyrics or thoughts of their own - throughout the old school as a way to say goodbye to the building which will be demolished.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Easthampton High School sophomore Marisa Dineen paints the words "Don't let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game" in the hallway of the school on Tuesday. Students in art teacher Jimmy Ilson's class have been stenciling messages - quotes, song lyrics or thoughts of their own - throughout the school as a way to say goodbye to the old building which will be demolished when the new high school building next door is open.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Students in Easthampton High School art teacher Jimmy Ilson's class reversed their stencils to place a message of thanks on a window visible to the crews constructing the new high school building next door. The class has been stenciling messages - quotes, song lyrics or thoughts of their own - throughout the old school as a way to say goodbye to the building which will be demolished.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

The walls, windows and even ceilings bear painted parting messages, from “So long” and “Farewell” to Shakespeare’s “Parting is such sweet sorrow.”

The writing on the wall is courtesy of the high school’s Fine Arts 2 class, which has been working on the “How do You Say Goodbye?” project for four months. Since the school is destined for demolition, art teacher Jimmy Ilson saw it as a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to undertake a schoolwide art display that would provoke students, staff and years of alumni to reflect on leaving the 52-year-old school building.

“So how do you say goodbye? Do you do it in sadness? Do you do it in memories, or in song lyrics? It’s a profound thing to work on,” Ilson said in class Jan. 22.

Once or twice a week since Principal Vito Perrone gave Ilson the green light in October, the students have been coming up with phrases, mixing paints and using stencils to paint their words on brick, windows and doors, instead of the traditional canvas.

There are now about 100 phrases around the building. The class ended last week, with the close of the first semester, but Ilson said he may continue the project with an afterschool art club.

Sanctioned street art

In addition to providing a way for students to bid the building farewell, the project gave him a chance to take the class in a direction that is unusual for a high school art class — to the world of public art known as graffiti or street art. Students tend to perk up when teachers suggest they start writing on the walls.

“Sometimes it’s considered defacement and sometimes it’s not,” Ilson said. “It’s a paradox.”

In recent years, alternative public art displays, like those by the anonymous English graffiti artist known only as Banksy, have blurred the line between vandalism and art. Graffiti and street art often has tones of activism, subculture and, because spray painting on most walls is illegal, rebellion. It’s something teenagers “get,” he said.

“They understood immediately that it was about a greater idea and the depth of it, and that this wasn’t silly drawings on the walls,” said Ilson, 53, of Hadley.

“I loved the idea of being able to write on the walls here without be reprimanded,” said 17-year-old Becca Paul, explaining that she is a big fan of graffiti and street art. “I like walking around the abandoned factories in town and taking pictures of the graffiti. I like that it’s beautiful to me, when everyone else thinks it’s ugly.”

In keeping with the underground spirit of graffiti art, Ilson’s students decided to keep their role in the wall painting a secret for a few months. They announced Dec. 18 in the student newspaper that their class was responsible for the art, and invited students, staff and generations of EHS alumni to submit passages they’d like to see on the walls as well.

They have inscribed many submissions from community members, Ilson said, including one from a teacher who sent along a passage from Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” saying it reminded her of her school days in the 1970s.

“We think it’s just us losing this building, but a lot of teachers and other people graduated from here,” said junior Jessica Harper, 16, while brushing paint into a spattered stencil with help from George.

“It’s their building too, and this is our way to represent them,” George said.

“Bittersweet” art

In a third-floor stairwell, Matthew Rood, 17, and Andrew Closser and Timothy Pfau, both 16, applied purple paint to stencil “These were the best times” reversed on a window overlooking the driveway as snow swirled outside the panes. Pfau said it was a sort of companion to a phrase they also reversed on a window on the floor below: “The best times are yet to come.”

“We did it backward so people outside could see it,” Rood explained. “I think it’s kind of unique, to see something written backward on a school window. But then you don’t usually see paintings like these on the walls of a school, either.”

Rood said his favorite stencils were those that said “goodbye” in different languages, especially one in Afrikaans that read “Totsiens.” He liked the mystery about them, because most students don’t know what they mean.

Closser said the freedom of the project was exhilarating; Ilson initially asked students what and where they were stenciling, but he said he soon realized they were responsible enough to choose for themselves.

“It’s cool because you get to choose what you do; you’re not instructed like you are for a normal project,” Closser said.

And they take the work seriously. Down the hall, George carefully corrected an imperfect stenciled ‘S,’ her pride in her work was obvious.

Her partner, Harper, called Ilson over and excitedly described to him that when sunlight hits a reversed phrase written on a window, it casts a shadow on the floor that can be read from left to right.

Ilson said the students’ work continues to surprise him, especially in the way the phrases have evolved from being simple parting messages to inventive artistic metaphors or “art about art.”

He pointed to a spot over a water fountain on the third floor, where blue letters spelled out “It’s bittersweet.” He likes that it is about saying goodbye, but cleverly refers to taste in a spot where students drink.

One unavoidable fact students deal with while they work is that their words will disappear. After moving to the new school during April vacation, the old buildng is scheduled to be knocked down in June. But instead of being disappointed by that, Ilson and his students seem thrilled by the idea.

“What you’re doing here is this kind of momentary thing. It’s ephemeral,” he told his students. “It’s like fireworks, it’s there and then it’s gone.”

Ilson, who has been teaching at area schools for 20 years, said he does not have any recent experience with this kind of art; his work is mostly sculpture and charcoal drawings. This is his first year at Easthampton High, and he said the “How do You Say Goodbye” project has given him ideas for future classes there.

“This motivates me to do more classes focused on public art and how to find your voice through it,” he said. “High school students get that.”

In his office Jan. 22, Perrone said he saw it as a “nice, creative way for students to put their spin on goodbye.”

“I was excited for students to be intimately involved in saying ‘goodbye’ to the school,” he said. “I wanted them to have that opportunity to put their talents into play in a forum where the school is the canvas.”

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.

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