When Creekside Middle School in Woodstock opened in 2007, art teacher Jeriel McGinness couldn’t stand the bare walls. So he got to work.
The result: Colorful mosaics now fill the halls and much of the school grounds.
Beyond esthetics, they’ve marked the death of a student from a terminal illness and helped soothe students with special needs.
McGinness isn’t solely responsible. He says the mosaics are the work of “easily 3,000” students over the years. Parents, grandparents and other teachers have contributed, too, helping put up what McGinness estimates to be probably more than 10,000 individual tiles that make up the works of art.
“There’s literally thousands of people who have contributed to making the tiles, glazing, cutting glass,” says McGinness, 57.
He began what’s become a years-long project with a piece in a once-barren hallway. Titled “Creekside Mosaic,” it depicts a prairie — representatng the surrounding landscape — with a creek and a falcon, the school mascot. Though it appears to be a single piece, there are three sections completed at different times.
After the first section was installed in 2008, students added to it over the next nine years. It’s about 80 feet across.
To start, McGinness enlisted Pam Maxwell, an artist who lived in Dundee. He’d seen pictures of mosaics she helped another teacher create in Elburn.
Maxwell, 65, who since has moved to Minnesota, says she helped McGinness learn the basics of making mosaics.
“He was really good about getting everybody on board and got everybody enthused and excited about it,” Maxwell says.
Since that first effort, McGinness says he’s had families create tiles or imprint clay for mosaics, enlisting their help at open houses and parent-teacher conferences.
“One dad at parent conferences didn’t know what to do, so he took out his Blackberry phone and pressed it in the clay,” McGinness says.
Students have contributed with shoe and thumb prints, McGinness says, and students in wheelchairs have pressed clay on their wheelchair tires to create tread marks.
“It’s not just eye-capturing,” Michael Wheatley, the school principal, says of the art.
He sees students with sensory-processing disorders walking the halls and feeling the textures — “that sensory piece for some of the students that need that.”
One mosaic, titled “Hope Springs Eternal,” stands about two stories tall and honors Hope Fuller, a Creekside student who died in 2010 from a brain tumor and “all students who themselves or their families are battling life-threatening illnesses.”
Hope’s parents, Deb and Jay Fuller, are teachers in the far northwest suburban school district.
“We were really honored,” Deb Fuller says. “It’s just powerful to know that your child will still be remembered.”
The center of the mosaic has four yellow frogs, Hope’s favorite creature, and four large yellow and red tulips to announce spring. Another of Hope’s favorites, a dragonfly, sits at each of the mosaic’s four corners, three of them appearing to fly inward and one outward.
“We kind of talked about that representing Hope’s journey to heaven,” her mother says.
Other mosaics McGinness has overseen at the school include a brightly colored skull, fish and bubbles over a water fountain, an urn, a peacock, a guitar and some smaller framed images that sit at wheelchair level near a special-needs classroom.
McGinness also completed an indoor mosaic of the school sign with help from two students he got involved, telling them they could work on it if they got their grades up.
McGinness and Charles Jones, the art teacher at Prairiewood, the adjoining elementary school, completed a mosaic last summer on the back of the school sign outdoors. It highlights the prairie landscape with cranes — real ones sometimes are spotted on the school grounds — and a creek.
“I learned a lot in the process just by watching McGinness and listening to him,” Jones says.
Wheatley says the mosaics have added to what “Creekside really is” and that the school will miss him when he retires in a few years.
He says, “Jeriel’s the type of guy that, whoever we have to hire to come in, I feel bad for because there’s some pretty big shoes to fill.”