Art Beat feature: Hilltop Elementary unveils a mural of belonging

Principal Melissa Somoza and artist Liz Tran posing by their new mural with the Hilltop Student Council.

“This is the first time we have ever done an outside assembly,” Hilltop Elementary Principal Melissa Somoza told the sea of waiting students. “Hopefully, you know why you’re here today, this started because of you.”

The courtyard at the Lynnwood school was full of students, staff and representatives from the Edmonds School District gathered for an unveiling of a mural that was created in partnership with community grants, donations and PTSA funds.

The Hilltop Mural Club unveiling the mural.

Part of the school’s writing curriculum involves sending letters to Somoza on what students think could be different. In multiple letters, students asked to create a mural.

When the school decided to go ahead with the mural project, Somoza reached out to Tran over social media. Somoza saw local artist Liz Tran’s art in an Edmonds gallery years ago and fell in love with her style. “I’ve always thought ‘this is such kid-friendly art,'” she said. “It’s imperfect, its bright colors, every piece is unique. All the things that would make kids feel successful in art.” When she reached out, she thought, “there’s no way. She’s going to say no, but then she said yes! She’s been amazing. It has been an amazing experience and has brought our kids confidence as artists and in feeling a part of something.”

Liz Tran and Melissa Somoza

Tran truly seems in her element with the students. She has worked with student artists before, but it was her first time helping children with a mural. “Working with kids is more fun,” she said. “They’re really creative and open and very honest. As adults we filter ourselves a lot, both creatively and in every way as a society. Kids don’t have that quite yet. There is a lack of self judgment.”

The mural

Tran says of the mural’s design: “We went with a tree. I have a strong connection to trees and the kids have a connection to trees, too. I mean, we’re from the Pacific Northwest. The tree represents Hilltop and the branches represent students.” Five hundred-plus students participated. She had each student artist paint a wooden circle with a design that represents themselves. Across the bottom, Tran added the words “We Belong at HIlltop,” which captures the school’s theme for the year, “Belonging.” The final product also includes a sound element from sonic architectural firm Memory is a Game. The firm incorporated audio from students as they created the mural to capture their thinking throughout the process.

“We Belong at Hilltop”

The school put together a mural club of students with an interest in art who also helped Tran paint the top of the tree. One student, fifth grader Violet Melllich, said she was drawn to participate in the mural club because “I like to do art on furniture. When I heard they were doing a mural club, I was like, ’oh my God I want to do it so bad.’”

Sixth grader Narayan Mitra wanted to join the mural club because “I have a huge passion about art. I really like to draw characters from games I’ve played. I just love to draw and make art, so I was really hyped about this. I was really glad when I joined. It was so much fun.”

Narayan went on to describe what he learned from the experience: “Being in more than other ways of art is really nice and really fun. And lots of other people can feel really connected to it.”

There certainly is a connection to the mural, beyond the students and teachers. There were many participants in the mural’s creation. Jennifer Blackstone, who is the school’s art docent, galvanized parent volunteers to help students paint their contributions. Additionally, the PTSA also provided support. Parent Julia Reynolds, whose daughter Jolie is a third grader at Hilltop, explained the PTSA’s involvement. “We had a grants program this year, so when Melissa brought this idea for a mural project with [Tran] we absolutely were right on board with it,” Reynolds said. “Our mission as a PTSA is to support the students and the community. This felt like an appropriate project to participate in, especially in supporting the arts.”

A closeup of some of the student circles.

With encouragement from Tran, who also fundraised for the project, the PTSA created an arts fund that will be used on a grant basis. Fundraising that is done beyond the cost of the mural will go into the arts fund. Readers who wish to donate can access the school’s PayPal here. Read more about the stages of the mural project on Hilltop’s smore page.

What’s next for Tran? She says the project “makes me want to teach, honestly. I’m thinking about programs in the future and replicating this. It’s so meaningful and has got to be the most rewarding project I’ve done, at least in a very long time.”

Melissa Samoza and Liz Tran, posing with the Hilltop Student Council

— By Elizabeth Murray

Photo by Brittany Gross

Elizabeth Murray is a freelance writer thankful to call Edmonds home. When she’s not busy wrangling her two kids (and husband), you can find her playing ukulele and singing with The Band LeLe.

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