by Cassie Stephens/ Art Teacher Johnson Elementary
Growing up, the elementary school I attended had one hallway. Our school housed first grade through fifth with two classrooms for each grade. In the middle was the gym/auditorium/cafeteria where in the morning we’d play with a giant parachute, at noon we’d pick at our food and smash ketchup packets with our sneakers under the fold-out tables, and, at Halloween, we’d walk on stage in a parade of costumes. Just off of that multi-tasking room was the best-smelling room in the school: the library.
I know I’m not the only one who loves the smell of old books. And our library had plenty of them. Aside from that, the library housed one giant Commodore 64 for the 300-plus students to play endless rounds of Oregon Trail. As you can imagine, libraries have certainly changed since the mid 80s. The books they now house are bold, bright, and, sadly says me, no longer have that musty old-book smell. Recently, our library got an incredible makeover, making it more than just a room that housed books. It became a place where books and their characters jumped right off the page, interacted with one another, and invited library patrons to step inside and join the fun.
My school has an incredible librarian, Laurel Aiello. Recently, she recruited the services of an incredible mural artist, Gale Hinton. With Laurel’s vision and Gale’s talent, the two were able to create a magical environment for all who step foot inside our school library.
When I walked into school the Friday morning Gale started painting, I found her on a scaffolding 12 feet in the air. She’d been painting for only two hours and already she’d knocked out the background of a fantastical scene complete with green rolling hills, lush greenery, and a castle rising above it all. I knew this was something all of the students at my school should witness, so I asked her if she’d be game for an interview. She happily agreed. I set a time to return at lunch with my tripod and camera.
Upon my return, Gale had included all of the kids’ favorite book characters into the landscape. There were the Magic Tree House kids, Fancy Nancy, The Cat in the Hat . . . you name it, they were there frolicking in the beautiful scene. While teaching, I’d gathered a bunch of questions from my students for Gale. My favorite was, “Did you paint on the walls as a kid since you do it as a grown up?”
I found out that Gale, who paints with the speed of lightning, finishing our school murals in a matter of days, is 74 —and proud of it, as she should very well be. She’s been creating magical scenes for 50 years and doesn’t show any signs of stopping. As she and I chatted, I realized how fortunate my students are to have a wonderful librarian who had this vision for her library and the artist who brought it to life. The beautiful murals of Johnson Elementary were created in dedication to T.J. Aiello, Laurel’s husband, who loved art.
To see more images of the mural and my interview with Gale Hinton, visit my blog cassiestephens.blogspot.com and my YouTube channel Cassie Stephens.