Aliens have overtaken the art wing at Parkersburg High School (PHS), but judging by the other murals around them, they seem to be there in peace and love. Operating under a grant from the state, PHS students brightened the hallways in the art wing of the campus under the direction of art teacher Emma Romanowski. Romanowski applied for the state grant which was geared towards exciting students about science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) electives. Romanowski’s approved grant allowed 16 students five days to complete 10 murals under her guidance.

“I’m hoping that this program helps kids get the confidence to be able to paint around the school and paint for teachers because there’s support around the building – every single department has at least one or two teachers who were like ‘hey, paint something in my room,’” Romanowski said. “So I’m hoping that this is kind of a segue into being able to paint more around the school and like a catalyst to get them involved with the flood wall mural that’s going on and the art center mural. There are so many opportunities.”

Romanowski cites the Parkersburg art boom as one of the main reasons that she decided to pursue the grant noting the experiential learning that she can provide in this situation will give them the confidence to start creating art for the project.

Half of the things that we know about cultures that have long since passed are their art, their pottery, their tools, and their cave paintings.

“Art is a universal concept for people and that’s important for high school students to understand because it does change your worldview. One of my favorite quotes ever, loosely goes ‘after civilizations crumble, art is all that’s left.’ Half of the things that we know about cultures that have long since passed are their art, their pottery, their tools, and their cave paintings,” Romanowski said.

Romanowski, a 2010 graduate of PHS, believes in the long standing traditions of the high school. As a high school basketball player, she remembers her coach walking their team through the halls of the field house where it’s lined with photographs of past state championship teams and notable athletes.

“It felt so haunting and almost alive in itself. I want to build that with art. If we can get that concept of students pouring themselves into the walls – pouring themselves into actually creating something here, then I really hope that they echo that when they get older. No matter where they go, it’s kind of like blowing the seeds of a dandelion – if you can foster that notion of the universal construct while they’re here, then, as they go they kind of just sow the seeds of creation. If you can do that, you can literally change the country and it starts in the hallway here, treating each other like they’re treating each other. It’s just beautiful,” she said.

For her, the project is a piece that will allow the students autonomy over their space. As a high school student, things often remain prescribed, but this project allows them the ability to have a say in their space.

What I want is for them to walk through this hallway and kind of shed the nine to five dreary white walls and be able to be like, ‘Whoa, okay I can breathe again.’

“You kind of pour yourself into everything that you do when you create, and by pouring yourself into the literal walls of this school, I think it kind of gives kids a connection,” Romanowski said. “What I want is for them to walk through this hallway and kind of shed the nine to five dreary white walls and be able to be like, ‘Whoa, okay I can breathe again.’ Then, I think the color will just slowly, infectiously spread to the rest of the building.”

Romanowski remained hands-off as much as possible during the week, letting the students be the driving force behind the project while maintaining the state guidelines of nothing political, nothing religious, and nothing that is copyrighted. All mural designs must be original content.

“At the beginning of the week, I gathered everyone and said ‘Hey, we’re gonna pretend like this is a client so that you know how to speak to people. Your client gave you an open concept: you can do what you want, as long as it falls within these guidelines.’ It wasn’t planned, but it’s all peace, love, and outer space in this hallway. Basically I’ve been a gofer all week which is the role I wanted to have during this program,’ she said.

The hallway, previously described as “institutional” is now full of original art pieces that liven up the space. Ella Wells, a rising junior, is one of the students who chose to participate in the project. For Wells, school has always been a place of stress and an opportunity like this allowed her to become excited for school again and for the coming year.

Because of the quarantine, it’s been hard getting back to talking to people, and this has been a wonderful experience of getting back out there feeling like I’m part of something.

“Recently, I’ve lost a lot of motivation for painting, which I’ve really missed. So whenever I heard about this idea with Miss Romanowski, I thought it was a great way to get out of my shell and meet more people. Because of the quarantine, it’s been hard getting back to talking to people, and this has been a wonderful experience of getting back out there feeling like I’m part of something,” Wells said.

Wells, the designer behind the desert-influenced space-themed mural, chose her inspiration after seeing the others and wanting to help create cohesion in the hallway.

“I’m really into UFOs. I thought it would be really cool to have a UFO in the art hallway. I have a bracelet, which I’m wearing, that’s a rainbow UFO. I knew I wanted to do something inspired by that,” Wells said. “So I went on Pinterest and I found this cool inspiration of this tie dye ray coming out of the UFO. I knew instantly I wanted to do something like that, but at first I found it very difficult to make the tie dye. I realized I was relying too much on someone else’s creativity. I wasn’t using my own. So I just kind of said, ‘Let’s go for this,’ and I made it my own and I really like it.”

Wells’ participation and growth within the program is exactly what Romanowski envisioned when she applied for the grant. For her, the focus is on growing and strengthening the art presences in the community as a placemaking activity.

By letting people do public art, it gives them ownership to the town. I think that’s incredibly important, because we’ve seen how it’s revived the town already.

“If you think about the kind of art revival that’s going on in Parkersburg, you have to focus on younger students if you want that to continue. People are leaking out of West Virginia, and not just Parkersburg, but leaking out of West Virginia,” Romanowski said. “I chose to come back, but I think that a lot more people would have stayed and invested in the community if they would have had a place. By letting people do public art, it gives them ownership to the town. I think that’s incredibly important, because we’ve seen how it’s revived the town already.”

Rising senior and Big Red Marching Band Drum Major, Courtney Rather, jokingly mentioned that she chose to participate because the program gave her permission to do what she had wanted to do for a long time already – draw on the walls. Rather’s mural bridges the gap, both physically and artistically, between the art hallway and the band hallway featuring flowers leading into a rainbow and a music staff that becomes musical notes. Her work is part of a collaborative effort between herself and several other band students who chose to participate in the project.

“Art is important to high school students because high school and middle school, specifically, is a very vulnerable part of teenage life. We have a lot of emotions; a lot of built up things and creativity is one of the greatest ways to just get everything in your head out, which is why I personally like to do all sorts of arts. So music, painting, drawing – all of that is something that really just helps me get through life way easier,” Rather said.

Watching the students take the project from start to finish has been the best part for Romanowski. While the program starts at 11 a.m, she had students who wanted to come in at 8 a.m. and that drive surprised her and inspired her.

“They’re not only just gung ho about getting it up on the walls, but they’re gung ho about helping each other. The amount of people who were walking down the hall, and they’ll say, ‘hey, can you hand me some blue?’ Then they mix up blue and hand it up. It’s an insular community and I’m just blown away,” she said.

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