Art Teacher & Volunteer Muralist

Image of Garden SceneToday’s Art Classroom: Dale Witkowski, Hendy Elementary School, Elmira, NY

by Tamar Samuel-Siegel
Special Projects Coordinator

What’s the last place you walked into and felt like something extraordinary was going on, like some part of yourself you frequently allow to nap was nudged and stirred and delicately awoken? When that little thrill of exhilaration entered your pulse, what did you want to do first? Explore? Create? Ask questions?

In Dale Witkowski’s art classroom at Hendy Elementary School in Elmira, NY, I was keen to do each of those things. I’d arrived just as a group of third grade students were lining up to walk back to their homeroom. What did you work on today? I asked the boys at the head of the line.Aborigine animals, one replied. What animal did you make?I asked the boy who was distractedly peeping down the hall, bouncing out of his spot in line over and over to get a peek around the corner. A kangaroo, he told me, his focus boinging down the hall ahead of him. When I asked him what was special about kangaroos, the dots he’d been plotting for his artwork converged. They kick! he said.

Once their homeroom teacher had come to pick them up, Dale’s classroom was still astir with potential energy. Project examples in varying stages hung on the walls; notes on the whiteboard indicated new vocabulary – including, of course, the word Aborigine. A poster introduced the elements of art. This classroom was populated with small tables, small chairs, small people, and big interwoven ideas marrying form, media, cultural, and conceptual components. Her third graders’ introduction to Aborigine art included geography, symbolism, and exploration in the media of wax resist.

While her classroom drew me in, stirring to wakefulness the urge to feel paint on my skin and search out inspirational library books full of magical lands and intoxicating images, the reason for my visit was to see the murals depicting step-in-scenes that Dale had recently created for a Family Reading Partnership of Chemung Valley literacy event, Book Fest 2015.

Dale pulled the scrolls of canvas out of a closet and unrolled them one at a time onto the floor. Four storybook scenes emerged. “The students could dress up with some props that we had and pose for a picture in the scene,” she told me. When I asked Dale why she had chosen to be a volunteer artist for a community literacy project she said, “It was an opportunity to use my talents to connect to the community for a worthwhile cause.” She said she was happy to support “outreach to children in the community to learn to read and to enjoy it.”

Family Reading Partnership selected the images they wanted Dale to paint. She designed the images, mixed the paints, and coordinated a small crew of students and other faculty who also volunteered their time to complete the murals.

“Children start reading by looking at pictures and making up stories,” said Dale. “Art is important in the reading process… [It] ignites the imagination for storytelling,” she said.

Dale’s murals of step-in-scenes capture the essence of today’s art classroom. Like the Aborigine art project that allows a young man with a spring in his feet to render his energy into the shape of a kangaroo, the murals make observers into actors, students into explorers, curious minds into storytellers with their own tales to tell.