Mural at new Williamstown Elementary School inspires students

While “back to school” means something a bit different for most this fall, students attending the new Williamstown Elementary school will have a bright, brand new mural in the school’s cafeteria waiting to welcome them this month. Made from repurposed glass and ceramic pieces, the mural was designed by local artist Jack O’Hearn in partnership with Artsbridge.

The design process began last fall with a meeting between O’Hearn, Artsbridge Director Amanda Stevens, and Wood County Schools Superintendent William Hosaflook to discuss an art installation. O’Hearn proposed a glass and ceramic mosaic using materials collected from the community and a collaborative design process that included student participation.

“I began the design process by giving the students a set of questions about their school and educational experience,” said O’Hearn. Students were asked to respond with a drawing or a short paragraph. In total, O’Hearn said they collected around a hundred submissions from 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders from the Waverly and Williamstown Elementary Schools. “There were some really great drawings and stories that came from that.”

Artist Jack O’Hearn placing a tile on the new mosaic mural.

O’Hearn then categorized the submissions into several different overarching themes, with the three most common themes being spending time with friends, school subjects, and the school mascot and slogan.

“I created three different designs based on these themes and we had the students vote on which design would become the mural. They ultimately chose the design that incorporated friendship as well as the school’s mascot and slogan.”

The community has been wonderful throughout the entire process.

O’Hearn enjoyed working with the students throughout the design process and said he hopes the students who participated can feel a sense of ownership and pride when they see it this fall, knowing their ideas helped inspire its creation.

Leading up to the installation, Artsbridge collected donations of glass and ceramics at the Artsbridge Music in the Park, said Board Member and local artist Melony Gingery. “The community has been wonderful throughout the entire process,” she said. “It took our board an entire day to break the glass into usable mosaic pieces. Any time the project was mentioned on social media, we received more glass.” During installation, an entire truckload of Blenko stained glass was delivered from a local stained-glass artist. With the new school being constructed on the former site of Fenton Glass, it was only fitting.

Jack O’Hearn and Melony Gingery worked on installation every day.

O’Hearn grew up in a family of tradesmen. “My late grandfather, father, and uncle were all tile installers specializing in ceramic, stone, and glass,” he said. In 1976, his grandfather started his own company. O’Hearn worked for the family business on and off throughout college and then full-time for three years after graduation.

“I learned a lot, and I’m forever grateful to have had that experience,” he said, “but I wanted to pursue a career in art, so I left to attend graduate school. I’ve been creating murals and other public art projects for a few years now and thought it’d be really fun to mix my new expertise with what I had learned in the family business.”

Melony Gingery hands a tile to Parker Waters to place on the wall.

This mural is O’Hearn’s first mosaic as an artist. “A big part of an artist’s training is critical thinking and problem solving and it’s the part I enjoy most. I like experimenting, figuring out new materials, and finding ways to adapt to the unexpected.”

Although his background served him well, he said he did consult with his dad on a couple of things. “It was really great to create a work of art that had that connection to my family’s history.”

Art can lend a voice to those who are often not heard.

O’Hearn and Gingery completed most of the installation themselves but were joined by Artsbridge board members, staff, and their children who stopped by to lend a hand. “Artsbridge was fantastic to work with and provided some really valuable volunteers,” said O’Hearn. With the additional help, they were able to cut the install time in half. While the pandemic prevented more people from participating in the execution phase, O’Hearn said he was glad to have gotten students involved with developing the imagery.

Progress on the mural being recorded.

Located in the cafeteria of the new combined Williamstown-Waverly Elementary School, the new mural will be a daily fixture in students’ lives. “Our dream is that it will provide a sense of unity and friendship as the students begin this new learning journey together,” said Gingery. “Art can lend a voice to those who are often not heard. This mural speaks for the students about what their school means to them.”

Many of the drawings submitted by students included kids holding hands. Gingery said they hope students see themselves in their friends in the faces of the children in the mural and strive to “Be the Best Bee You Can Be” (the school’s motto.)

The final design, based on student submissions

O’Hearn said the school’s motto resonated with him as well. “It’s something I’m continuously thinking about myself, especially now that I have little kids. How can I be the best version of myself? It’s a great thing to instill in these kids and hopefully the mural serves as a daily reminder.”

Art in public spaces is important for instilling a sense of place in a community, O’Hearn said. “I believe the most affective public art engages the community and that the more it does this, the more the community will consider it their own, contributing to their sense of pride and love for their community.”

Researchers have found that art in public spaces can contribute to a reduction in crime and juvenile delinquency, increased volunteerism, and increased feelings of trust and appreciation within a community. The key, said O’Hearn, is to use public art as an opportunity to engage people in improving their own community. “That’s why it was really important to me that the students were involved in the creative process.”

Jack O’Hearn placing tiles alongside volunteers

Ultimately, the new mural is a true product of community collaboration. From the donations Artsbridge collected from local community members to Principal Mannix-Bretthauer, Principal Taylor, and the teachers who helped coordinate student submissions and of course the students who played a role in the design and installation process, O’Hearn is grateful for the many helping hands.

O’Hearn hopes the mural’s presence will inspire young kids who like art to pursue it and serve as a reminder that we are all connected to one another.

“The mural shows that whether it is school or life, we’re all in this together and although we may look different from one another, we’re the same in a lot of ways. We’re all connected and share a human bond.”