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‘We did this together’ — Boys & Girls Club students create wall mural

Artist Wesley May gives painting tips to Leila Greiner, 8, at the Boys & Girls Club of the Bemidji Area as May and students put the finishing touches on a giant mural in the club’s gymnasium. Pictured in the background is Maya Brim, 7. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer1 / 2
Cody Lyle, 9, ponders the unicorn he is painting on the giant mural in the gym at the Boys & Girls Club of the Bemidji Area. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer2 / 2

BEMIDJI — Lukas Beaulieu, 13, paints a dreamcatcher, carefully layering red, blue, green and yellow.

Grace Greiner, 9, paints a panda bear, concentrating as she adds the white belly inside black borders.

"They’re so cute and they look fuzzy," said the J.W. Smith Elementary student. "I like fuzzy things. They’re fun to cuddle with."

The two are among dozens of students working after school to paint a large mural on the wall of the gymnasium inside the Boys & Girls Club of the Bemidji Area.

"I like that we get to paint on the gym wall," Lukas said.

Nearby, 8-year-old Abby Kuhn, a J.W. Smith student, painted an alicorn, a mythical creature half-unicorn and half-Pegasus.

"I’m going to put some blue here," she said, pointing to the wings, "and then I’m going to color the hair yellow."

Maya Prim, 7, a Schoolcraft Learning Community student, adds the second color to what will become a multi-colored rainbow. Under the arch is a light blue fish with dark blue spots and a red cheek.

"Yesterday, I painted a ladybug and a turtle," she said.

Nine-year-old Joe Parsons, a J.W. Smith student, paints a darker creature, a mixture of darker hues.

"It’s a bear," he said. "I think it’s a mix between a black bear and a brown bear."

The students have spent the past month working alongside artist Wesley May, who first taught them to work in pencil, then pastels and finally paint.

Their lessons now are culminating in the creation of the mural, which will be unveiled June 4 to the public.

"I love it," May said of working with children. "They’re our future … I like being an example for what they can be when they get older. I know that the examples that are set for them now have a big impact on who they will be in the future."

‘it empowers them’

Draw a straight line.

Draw a circle.

May then asks his students to claim their work: Who drew this one? Who drew that one? What is it?

"Once they own it and say they did it, it empowers them," May said, recalling how he began his sessions.

By drawing their line and then having each student name it a straight line, May said he’s teaching them that their artwork is theirs alone; no one can call it anything else.

"Once that happens, their creativity just explodes," he said.

Soon, students are progressing from a straight line to a triangle, to a diamond, to a square.

"Then they step back from it and see it’s a dreamcatcher," May said.

‘very encouraging’

May has been a professional artist for 15 years, but began working with children about two years ago.

The process he is using with Boys& Girls Club kids is similar to what he does at local events, including conferences and powwows.

"I’ll start painting and anyone walking by, I’ll invite them in to be part of it," he said. "Then we’ll build and build until it’s a beautiful painting with all of the energy from everyone who is there."

May has also done similar programs at the four branches of the Boys & Club of the Leech Lake Area.

For this project, he was contacted by Amber Klemish, education coordinator at the Boys & Girls Club of the Bemidji Area, as she sought an artist willing to work with students to craft artwork inspired by American Indian culture.

The project is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from Region 2 Arts Council, and a legislative appropriation from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

Klemish applied for a grant through the Region 2 Arts Council after having received a suggestion for installing Indian-inspired artwork around the club.

The Bemidji club averages, per day, 35 middle school and high school students and 70 elementary students. Of those, 46 percent are non-white and 28 percent are Indian.

Klemish was successful with the grant.

"This was the first grant I’ve written — ever," Klemish said. "I was pretty excited when I got it."

May comes to the club Mondays through Thursdays. He works with younger, elementary students Tuesdays and Thursdays and older students Mondays and Wednesdays.

"It’s pretty cool to watch them," Klemish said. "At the beginning, they might be standoffish, thinking ‘Oh this is dumb,’ but by the end, they’re all like, ‘No, no one can mess with my art because it’s mine.’

"Wesley is very encouraging, telling them they can’t make mistakes. It’s art. He talks about doing the best they can do."

After about a month of instruction, students moved from the classroom to the gymnasium, where they began adding their own symbols and artwork for what will become the mural.

May himself is working with the kids’ work to transform the wall into a comprehensive piece.

"My vision is that it’s like a river. When you look at it, you’ll see a river and their dreamcatchers will look like drops of water hitting that river," he said. "I’m not going to cover up their work; I’m going to add to what’s on there so they can still recognize what they did.

"We did this together. It will be inclusive of everyone who has been a part of it."

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