Art teacher Susan Doyle stands back as a group of her students applies green, brown and purple latex paint to a Blue Heron School hallway wall near the library.
They're helping to paint a mural that represents Port Townsend, with deer, houses, Victorian buildings, lots of trees and water, even a cargo ship passing by.
It's part of the place-based education, Doyle said, in keeping with the Port Townsend School District's Maritime Discovery Initiative, which links curriculum to surroundings.
Mural artist Alex Cook is leading the project. He developed the drawing for the mural based on discussions with students about what's recognizable in Port Townsend. He made the sketch on the wall in pink paint, and directed students to color in the different shapes.
"Take your brush and hold it at the end, like a pencil," he said helpfully to one student as a group of eighth-graders worked on the mural.
A green-checkered plastic tablecloth protected the carpet in the hallway near the school's library, and Cook distributed small plastic cups of different shades of paint mixed from a dozen or so cans on a nearby cart.
As he talked about it, he was interrupted by a student holding a small plastic cup of paint and a brush, asking, "What else do I paint purple?"
"You know what? You can do some tree trunks," Cook said to the girl with the purple. "Remember to go over the pink outline," he told the group.
A boy on a stepladder reached up to paint some evergreen trees in the top left corner. Another applied a yellow-gray tint to the smoke emanating from the paper mill. A girl used blue on a Hastings building look-alike. In between, more students stood, crouched and knelt, brushes in hand, focused on adding other colors to other parts of the mural.
"One of the cool things about working this way is it comes out how it's gonna come out," said Cook, who used to run a mural program for teenagers in Boston. He has a degree in painting from the University of Massachusetts.
"As an artist, it's really fun," he said. "When they finish, it's my job to make it look great. But there's all this information."
Before calling it done, he'll go over it and add finishing touches, taking advantage of the "information" – shapes and lines, tones, emphasis – added to the image created by the individual student-painters. "It's just sort of like choosing what's a great mistake, what's a bad mistake, what's a happy thing that happens," he said. "I'm trying to make it feel like a quilt," he said of the Blue Heron mural.
Cook, 41, has worked with a lot of student groups. He's only in Port Townsend for a couple of months, here with his partner, Marcy Girt, who is an actor in Key City Public Theatre's production of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee." Girt is also directing the theater's next play, "A Christmas Story," onstage Dec. 3-20.
Cook said his teaching philosophy is interchangeable with his life philosophy.
"I love to be really informal with everybody that I interact with," he said. "It's part of debunking that [art] has to be big and scary and serious."
ART CONQUERS FEAR
Cook has made it his life's work to help people feel involved, loved, needed and unafraid.
"Since I often do not have extended periods of time with people, I try to do what I can to help people feel like they don't have to be afraid in art," he said. "You see how terrified people are of making mistakes, in almost every aspect of their lives." A great way to push back against that too-pervasive fearfulness, he said, is community art. "No matter how bad of a mistake you make," it's OK.
With teenagers in Boston mural programs, he said, he would sometimes start by having students swipe "just a big blob of red paint" across a mural's preliminary drawing, "to just hijack that whole thing ... to show that this thing is not sacred."
Cook started making murals "as a way to have my work be seen, to be useful as an artist." His first project in Port Townsend was unveiled Oct. 3 at the Port Townsend Visitor Center. Called "Sea to Forest," that mural is located outdoors, beautifying a row of metal storage-unit doors with a depiction of rocks, trees and Port Townsend Bay at sunset.
"I just love to make pictures," Cook said. "Beauty is a very, very powerful healing agent. I feel like I have had success in making beautiful things, and making people feel involved in making beautiful things."
Cook is dedicated to murals that contradict negative messages of materialism and violence that pervade the media and public space. He has led the collaborative creation of dozens of murals in schools and churches that beautify walls and proclaim one or more positive messages: You are loved. You are important. You are needed. You are beautiful. You can do it.
Set in colorful designs and sometimes accompanied by foreign translations of these phrases – "Eres importante. Eres amado" (“You are important. You are loved.”) – the murals beautify as well as send a clear message.
As with the Blue Heron School mural, Cook creates a "coloring book" on the wall, and participants are guided as to how to fill in the design.
He starts out with a "vague plan of how it's going to move forward, color-wise," he said, and then takes advantage of the unexpected as it happens.
This month, Cook plans to work with students at Port Townsend High School to create a mural with the words "You Are Loved" in the school cafeteria. He has started an online fundraising campaign to help pay for his time and materials. To contribute, go to tinyurl.com/pfj7lxz.