Easthampton students' ‘street art’ bids farewell to school

Last modified: Tuesday, February 19, 2013

EASTHAMPTON — On Tuesday morning, while most Easthampton High School students were in class, juniors Jessica Harper and Tiereny George, both 16, were writing on the wall of a third-floor hallway. A teacher turned a corner and spotted them. No, he didn’t read them the riot act for vandalizing school property, but just smiled as he passed by.

The students are part of an art class of 18 that is painting its message — literally — all over the school, which is slated to be demolished after students move into the brand new building next door in April. The message is “goodbye.”

“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,” art teacher Jimmy Ilson said during class Tuesday.

Ilson and his advanced fine arts class started the “How do You Say Goodbye?” project in October, when school administrators gave them the go-ahead to do what would in some circumstances be considered vandalism. Once or twice a week since then, his students brainstormed phrases, mixed paints and headed into the hallways, where they inscribed their words on walls, ceilings, windows and doors, instead of the traditional canvas.

Some phrases were simple, like, “Bye HS,” or “These were the best times,” while others were famous quotations, song lyrics or even a familiar line from a Shakespeare play: “Parting is such sweet sorrow.”

Ilson, 53, of Hadley said there are now about 100 phrases decorating the building.

“At this point, when you walk through the halls ... you’ve filled out the canvas,” Ilson told his students. The walls of the art room were stenciled with green and blue B’s, where students practiced painting with the letter stencils before hitting the halls.

Those marks will disappear when the school is knocked down in June, after the school moves into the $39.2 million high school building during school vacation the third week of April. But Ilson and his students seem to love the idea of their work crumbling under the wrecking ball.

“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.”

That’s what makes it a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Ilson said in his pitch to Principal Vito Perrone last fall. He credited Perrone with being open-minded and accepting of the project while some teachers were skeptical.

In his office Tuesday, Perrone said he sees the project as a way for the students to be “intimately involved in saying goodbye to the school.”

“I think it’s a nice, creative way for students to put their spin on goodbye,” he said. “I wanted them to have that opportunity to put their talents into play in a forum where the school is the canvas.”

Art versus defacement

Not surprisingly, the students in the fine arts 2 class perked up a bit last fall when Ilson asked them what they thought about a project where they would write on the walls of their school.

“I loved the idea of being able to write on the walls here without being reprimanded,” said 17-year-old Becca Paul, a junior. She is a big fan of “graffiti and street art” and was ready to try her hand.

In recent years, alternative public art displays, like those by the anonymous English graffiti artist known as Banksy, have blurred the line between vandalism and art. Ilson taught students about the movement, and they responded with enthusiasm.

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

Graffiti and street art often have tones of activism, subculture and, because spray-painting on most walls is illegal, rebellion. It’s something teenagers get, he said, and his class of mostly juniors and seniors, with a few underclassmen, was up to the responsibility of the project.

“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,” he said.

As they started to stencil phrases in bright paint around the school, the hallways began to buzz with talk of the sporadic wall art and speculation about who was responsible for it. In keeping with the underground spirit of graffiti art, Ilson’s students decided to keep their role in it a secret until December.

“People would ask, ‘have you seen this stuff on the walls?’ and we’d say, ‘no,’ ” recalled George. They announced Dec. 18 in the student newspaper that their class was responsible for the art, and invited students, staff and 52 years’ worth of EHS alumni to submit passages they’d like to see on the walls before they come down.

“We think it’s just us losing this building, but a lot of teachers and other people graduated from here,” said 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.

Among the phrases from former students the art class has inscribed is a passage from Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” A teacher sent it to the class, saying it reminded her of her school days in the 1970s, and Ilson played the song for the class before they added it to a hallway wall.

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.” It is about saying goodbye, he said, but also cleverly refers to taste in a spot where students drink.

The move is indeed bittersweet, Harper said, as she and George inscribed, “A small artistic gesture can have a big impact” onto the brick wall.

“It’s weird, especially for upperclassmen who have been here for a while,” she said of the switch to the new building. “We know all the classrooms here, and we’ll be lost in there.”

A floor below, Paul applied paint to a wall a few feet off the ground, spelling out, “No matter how difficult life gets, you have to live it with hope.” She said it’s a quote from “Boy Meets World,” a 1990s television series about a boy’s adventures getting through middle school, high school and college.

“I like walking around the abandoned factories in town and taking pictures of the graffiti,” she said, keeping her eyes on her paint brush. “I like that it’s beautiful to me, when everyone else thinks it’s ugly.”

When the fine arts 2 class ends this week, Ilson plans to continue the project with his afterschool art club, so students can keep going if they wish.

George is proud of her class’s role in bringing the project to life. “It was Mr. Ilson’s silly idea that he brought up, and we went with it,” she said. “We made it what it is.”

Ilson is a visual artist who has been focusing lately on sculpture and charcoal drawings. He has been teaching at area schools for 20 years, he said, but this is his first year at Easthampton High.

He said the project has allowed him to “honor the community of the school” that he is new to.

“It’s not just what my students are doing, it’s about how we can do this project and involve everyone. Not just students and staff, but families and people who went here,” he said.

And even though the words on the wall will be reduced to rubble, he said he’ll take something away from it.

“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 it.”

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


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