guerrilla art (playground edition)

In late August, I sat down at the kitchen table and sketched out a mural. My goal was to transform my school’s preschool playground.

Three weeks later, myself and three other artists got to watch it appear layer after layer, becoming something even more beautiful than I could have hoped.

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The space has always been a pass-through space as well as our playground. It has always been a drab, mossy, concrete block with peeling district-tan paint.

Now? Now it is filled with little moments of whimsy, local flora and fauna, and bits and pieces from the kindergarten social studies and science curriculum.

As the students enter, they can run their hands along the peaks and valleys of the cascade mountains as seen from Sunset on Mount Rainier. Each of the major peaks is labeled and I am so excited to become more familiar with their names.

The mountains wrap around the corner and lead into the little town filled with my own nostalgia for the past and nods to a bright future. Perhaps some of my students will never visit a post office, but I dream of them being able to buy the abundant local produce from their co-op and charge their cars with locally gathered electricity. And who knows. Maybe snail mail will make a come back.

Curving around the corner, they discover an underground maze of creatures and vegetable roots. The mole has become a favorite among the classes that pass in and out of this space on their way to recess, and they love finding the ant hill with its little procession.

One of my favorite details is that when you crouch down to about three feet tall (just about the size of a preschooler), you can line the vegetables up with their foliage on the back wall. Of course, they’re also carefully labeled with plant markers as well for the students who only walk up and down the stairs and can’t see the familiar vegetables.

Our tree, the only piece left to be finished off with hand-print foliage from school community members, pulls the garden and stream together and, on close inspection, is home to several little creatures.

The stream has been another favorite among the students who learn all about the salmon’s life cycle in their science classes.

Wrapping back around to under the cascades is a magical forest wonderland. I knew exactly what I wanted there the moment I saw it, and was so excited to set Hilary loose on it. She specializes in snails and mushrooms and other commonly maligned (and highly misunderstood) creatures and I knew she would craft exactly what I wanted. Even with the high expectations I had for this corner, she blew me away. That burrowing snail is everything.

Thus far this corner has been my students' favorite. “A happy green frog!” and “a snaaaaail!” are common refrains. One of my students hangs out here regularly to chat with the frog.

Next, a nurse log (a pacific northwest necessity) delineates forest from herb garden. On our last full day of painting, I chalked a couple lines that did not look like a log onto the wall and told Benjamin “I want a nurse log here. With saplings. And moss” and then went back to finish the mountains. Perhaps fifteen minutes later, I went to mix more paint and discovered this finished piece. I still can’t get over that.

The herb garden is laid out in color order which has proved very helpful as we teach our littles about the rainbow. Be sure to not miss Benjamin’s swallowtail caterpillar on the dill plant, its favorite food. And, of course, without bees there would be no herbs or flowers so I made sure to include a hive for them.

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While I get to enjoy the playground space every day and soak up the excitement of the kids and adults who get to use it, there is something I’m taking away from this project that I value even more: I don’t want to be the most talented person in the room.

While I am rarely actually the most talented person in the room, I tend to pretend to others that I am. Now, having seen this project grow and bloom under the care of my friends and fellow artists into something I could never have done on my own, I can’t help but dwell on all I would have missed if I hadn’t asked them to join me and been willing to let go of the details. I had to struggle against my brain’s echo telling me that I had to get all the credit, that I had to be the one to add the most beauty, otherwise my contributions would mean nothing. A blatant lie of course, but a legitimate hurdle to get over.

But imagine. If I had stuck to that lie, I wouldn’t have let my Mom paint the mountains and we would have had to leave them out entirely. Benjamin’s creatures would never have come to life. Hilary’s forest wonderland wouldn’t be magical.

So here I stand, declaring that I am determined to find rooms where I am not the the one who knows the most, can make the most, or understands the most. I want to soak up the excitement and beauty of working with other people, even when it means I have to struggle with my own self worth. Because in the end it’s not what I can accomplish that matters anyway…it’s who I can support and grow with that will last.

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Many many thanks to my fellow artists…
Melanie Ross
Hilary Bilbury (Website)
Benjamin Blackketter (Website)


before photos: Melanie Ross
after photos: Benjamin Blackketter