Students, staff bringing art to their community with shared mural

April 2, 2024, 5 a.m. ·

Mural Design Plan with "Tigers" at Center of Piece
The mural that students at Dundy County Stratton Schools are working on will feature the word "Tigers" in the center of the piece. (Photo by Jolie Peal/Nebraska Public Media News)

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In a school district that’s population spans 990 square miles, the school is coming together to create a mural representing their community.

The 276 students who attend Dundy County Stratton Schools come from two time zones and five cities. The school is so close to the state’s southern border that some students come from Kansas.

They all come together in Benkelman, Nebraska in the southwest corner of the state to go to school every day. Now, along with their usual learning, they are creating a mural that will showcase a piece of them for years to come.

Marilyn Zarkowski teaches art to all the students at Dundy County Stratton Schools. She said students and staff are decorating clay tiles that will make up a four-foot by eight foot mural in the entrance of the grade school. The word “Tigers” – which is the district’s mascot – will be the center of the piece.

“Out here, we don't have a lot of art,” Zarkowski said. “This is going to be like a permanent installation for the community.”

Zarkowski’s high school students are decorating the tiles for the letters in “Tigers.” Sophomore Emma Baldeh is designing the letter “S.” She moved from Omaha to Benkelman. The sunsets and sunrises in rural towns inspired her design.

The middle where the blue and most stars are, that's like the deepest part of the night,” Baldeh said. “As you move out, it's kind of sunset, sunrise, whatever you want to interpret.”

Finished tiles that spell out "Tigers"
High school students designed the letters in "Tigers." (Photo by Jolie Peal/Nebraska Public Media News)

For Baldeh, art is an important part of her high school experience. She’s in the art club and loves the projects she gets to do in class.

Baldeh knows how special it is to have that access to art. According to the Nebraska Department of Education, in Fall 2021, there were 13 unfilled art teacher positions across the state. By Fall 2023, that number had doubled.

“I think in more rural communities art sometimes is pushed under the rug,” Baldeh said. “It's really cool that this is going to be something that's recognized, and that's going to be here forever.”

The mural idea was born as part of a grant application. The Nebraska Department of Education and the Nebraska Arts Council collaborated to create the Arts NOW grant. It was a one-time opportunity for schools to fund projects that include painting, pottery, theater, and music.

Cody Talarico, the arts education specialist for the state, said they awarded $180,000 to over 20 school districts.

“By a special project like this, it really opens kids to a variety of different opportunities and different thinking about what could be because a lot of the projects are something kind of out of the norm,” Talarico said.

The education department helped disperse the funds. The Nebraska Arts Council had federal money that needed to be spent by a certain date. Anne Alston, a program specialist with the Nebraska Arts Council, said they had heard from schools about projects they wanted to do, so the council put the grant together to make those ideas a reality.

Color Samples
Students could see what certain colors looked like after being fired in the kiln. (Photo by Jolie Peal/Nebraska Public Media News)

“This was a great way for school districts, the schools within those districts to celebrate the arts in a big way and bring arts education to the forefront, and for innovative teachers and administrators to show how a really good idea can go a long way to engage students and engage the entire community in some cases,” she said.

In Benkelman, students from all grades are creating tiles for the mural. Sixth graders painted volleyballs, basketballs and anime characters for tiles that will surround “Tigers.”

Molly Spargo’s tile design was inspired by a character named “The Puppet” from a game she loves. She said she usually draws on paper, so working with the clay tiles gives her the chance to try out new mediums.

Student Painting Tile
Molly Spargo paints an animated character on her tile in the sixth grade art class. The finished mural will be displayed in the grade school for Dundy County Stratton Schools. (Photo by Jolie Peal/Nebraska Public Media News)

“It’s something new to do,” Spargo said. “I like doing some new things instead of just using paper and stuff.”

Zarkowski, the art teacher, said she majored in clay in college. Her love for the art form has transferred to her students.

“They love clay,” Zarkowski said. “Whenever you ask the grade school students ‘What would you like to do,’ their first response is ‘I want to work in clay.’”

This project is the first time the students have specifically worked with clay tiles, though.

Daisy Collier said one exciting part of the project was bouncing ideas off her peers. She drew a checkered pattern on her clay tile.

Two girls pose with their finished tiles
Molly Ladenburger (left) and Daisy Colllier (right) pose with their clay tiles. (Photo by Jolie Peal/Nebraska Public Media News)

“I think it’s kind of fun because sometimes we can talk with our classmates on like ideas of what tile designs we should do,” Collier said.

Collier sits next to Molly Ladenburger in art class. Ladenburger’s tile features a bear with a tree. She knows a lot of facts about bears, from the size of their claws to how they hunt.

She said she’s excited to share a piece of herself that she can revisit through the years.

“Although, we're gonna come back in like 30 or so years, and be like, ‘Oh, I made that,’” Ladenburger said. “If my kids go here, I would like to show them that.”

The finished mural will represent a moment in time for Dundy County Stratton schools, but it will be enjoyed for generations.