07/16/10 — Painting knowledge on the walls

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Painting knowledge on the walls

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on July 16, 2010 1:46 PM

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Chris Allen pauses as he paints a seaside scene on a wall at Fremont STARS Elementary School. The Mount Olive College fine arts student is covering the hallways at the school with murals. He said his professor Cheryl Hooks inspired him to cover the blank walls. He has spent more than 140 hours on the project so far this summer. Allen plans to teach art after graduating.

FREMONT -- Three years ago, Mount Olive College junior Chris Allen wasn't even interested in painting.

And before this summer, the largest piece of artwork he had ever created was only about 8 feet long and 4 feet wide.

But with careful strokes of his paintbrush, enormous scenic views of North Carolina's natural beauty are slowly taking shape on the walls of Fremont STARS Elementary School.

Allen, 19, began painting when he took a class with Mount Olive College professor and Art Department chairman Cheryl Hooks in 2008. It was Mrs. Hooks who saw the unpainted walls of Fremont STARS Elementary when walking along the corridor with her son, a student at the school, and felt called to do something about it.

"She noticed how dreary the white-washed walls of the school were and immediately knew that God had led her to that place so that she would take on the task of illuminating those walls," Allen said.

Allen, a fine arts major, also feels strongly about the importance of getting artwork into schools. He plans to become an art teacher after earning his degree.

"The way Mrs. Hooks explained how much of a difference we would make to the children's lives, I knew I needed to do it. She understands that art is important even at the youngest of age and for the children to actually see a world literally being created before their very eyes is imperative," Allen said.

The paintings will bring the fourth- and fifth-grade state curriculum to life for students to see every time they walk down the hallways. Allen is tackling the project in phases, and the first phase focuses on the state's natural beauty.

"The theme of the murals is literally a physical form of the fourth- and fifth-grade curriculum with creativity poured into the mold. The first phase was to unify North Carolina's unique and beautiful geography, from the beautiful mountains, to the rolling fields of the Piedmont, to the crystal clear waters of the coast all on one wall," he said.

Painting the enormous "canvas" of the blank hallway walls was a big change from Allen's other artwork. He has put more than 140 hours of his effort into the project so far this summer, with more still to come. It has taken that long to research the theme, sketch out a skeleton of the design onto the walls -- the most challenging part of the entire process -- and then start painting.

"The painting was most fun, mixing the colors, feeling the brush on the wall. All that is exciting to me," Allen said.

Painting is Allen's favorite art form, and he finds a special symbolism in the landscapes he draws. He can work "loose" or put much effort into creating tiny details to the painting to make it more realistic. But it has also been challenging to work with landscape painting on such a large scale, he said.

Mrs. Hooks said she is proud of her student for taking on the project and the work he has completed to enrich the lives of local children.

"Faculty have the unique opportunity to be a part of an amazing unfolding of talent and academic development in the lives of young adults. For me, none have been any more amazing as has the creative outpouring of passionate devotion to art as that of Chris Allen," she said. "Not only has he developed as an artist, he has shown discipline and a willing, caring spirit."

Allen plans to finish the murals by the end of summer before the fall semester begins. He graduated from North Johnston High School, where he was an active volunteer in his community. He is receiving three semester hours of credit toward his degree program for the summer project.

The goal of the murals is to help the children understand there is a "place for art in the real world," Allen said.

"The visual arts are all around us and hold gravity in our culture, from the clothes we wear to the billboards we pass on the highway," he said.