In our own Backyard

Story last updated at 3:17 PM on Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Paul Banks unveils its peanut gallery

In our own backyard

By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer


Photo by Michael Armstrong

Viktor Romanko, left, points at self-portraits Paul Banks Elementary School students painted for the Paul Banks Peanut Gallery.

At more sedate First Friday openings last week, art lovers milled around quiet little downtown galleries, enjoying a nice spring evening.

Not so at the far end of Pioneer Avenue, after it turns into East End Road. At Paul Banks Elementary School, students, staff, teachers and parents put the "extra" in the school's First Friday Art Extravaganza. Teachers, dressed in gowns and suits, handed out snacks. Art of all media decorated temporary gallery walls — folded up lunch tables in the school multipurpose room. Students created fish sculptures out of telephone wire.

The big excitement, though, hung hidden behind blue paper and ready to be unveiled — and no, it wasn't the artist Christo's latest wrapped-art project, but "Paul Banks Peanut Gallery," a school community work created by 170 student artists under the direction of Artist in the School Ruby Haigh.

If Haigh looked a little emotional at the unveiling, that might have been because her residency brought her full circle back to where she had been 21 years ago. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Haigh had been a teacher for the deaf and hearing impaired at Paul Banks. She quit in 1991 after suffering a stroke.

To help her brain and body heal, she started doing pottery. Heading into her 14th summer creating beautiful ceramic art through her Jars of Clay studio on Main Street, Haigh took the natural next step in her career: teaching.

"I came back as a potter," she said of her two week residency in late February and early March. "For me it was the best of both worlds. I got to go back and teach at Paul Banks doing something that I absolutely love, which is pottery. It was a win-win for me."

Working with every student, Haigh inspired them to create one or two tiles for the mural. Younger children rolled out clay and punched it into molds. Some made impressions with rocks and other objects into the clay. Working clay into coils, students made squiggly designs or spelled out words like play, laugh, create, dance, learn and ask — words related to school.

"I really want the kids to have experience with clay, not just glazing a portrait on," Haigh said. "I let them play. There was one day they rolled out clay and experimented with textures. They just loved it. They were in heaven."

The community art project stood out among other Artist in School residencies, said Gaye Wolfe, an artist who assisted students and Haigh during the residency.

"This school is the coolest place," she said. "Everybody took ownership. It was way beyond an Artist in School project. Everybody got excited."

A program of the Alaska State Council on the Arts, Artist in School is administered locally by Bunnell Street Arts Center. Bunnell matches money raised by schools to bring artists in, usually for a two-week residency. Artists of all media and disciplines apply to get on the Artist in School teaching roster. They also attend a teaching artists training academy. Over the past 12 years, more than $100,000 has been spent locally to bring artists to lower Kenai Peninsula schools, said Asia Freeman, executive director of Bunnell.

The mural also is a return home for Freeman. In 1975 while a third grader at Paul Banks, Freeman also worked on a mural there.

"That's a huge commitment of that school and something they should be congratulated for. What's amazing is that it can happen in a couple of weeks," Freeman said.

The centerpiece of the mural is a grid of colorful self-portraits painted by the students. The title refers to Paul Banks, the school's namesake, a janitor who also was a composer and musician.

"He always had peanuts in his pocket. He was always giving kids peanuts," Haigh said. "The kids were called the Paul Banks Peanuts."

Haigh also credited her husband, Tim, for the mural frame, and Chad Dalke, the tile artist who put the mural together.

Teachers, staff and parents also were incredibly supportive.

"I think Paul Banks is a happenin' little place. It often gets overlooked," Haigh said. "The teachers are great, the parents are great, the kids are great."

Michael Armstrong can be reached at