At Nauset Middle School in Orleans, a group of students are collaborating on a unique after-school project with one of their teachers. They’re painting a large mural along one wall of a long downstairs corridor, slowly transforming it into a work of art.
Artist and Assistant Teacher Greg Johnson mixes a can of light blue paint in a downstairs corridor at Nauset Middle School. He's helping two students prep a new area of the wall where sections of the mural are coming together.
Johnson calls himself an aquatic artist. He has a keen eye for detail that makes his paintings and murals startlingly lifelike. He’s been hired to paint large murals on many buildings around the Cape, including the Orleans Post Office just across the street.
Nauset Middle School Principal Maxine Minkoff approached Johnson about creating the mural. To fund the venture, he applied for and received a grant from the Artslink Foundation. The kids started painting in October of last year.
“At first, we were thinking of maybe doing bears and coyotes and deer and all that type of stuff,” Johnson said, “but since we’re on Cape Cod, and this is my forte – aquatic life – we decided to stay with this theme.”
As he rolled a base coat of paint onto a section of wall, seventh-grader Cam McMartin recalled walking down these hallways last year.
“I’d just see this really bland hallway, and it was just like, ‘Ugh, this is so boring – nothing special down here.’ But now, it’s like, Pow!, you know, it pops out. It’s gonna be crazy,” said McMartin.
At just under 200 feet long, it's not possible to stand back and take in the whole mural at once. But walking the length of this corridor gives a sense of being in an aquarium. The mural meanders along the wall, with large and small fish appearing to swim around the classroom doors, water fountains, and fire extinguishers. Greg Johnson paints the larger creatures likes whales and dolphins, and leaves the seahorses, jellyfish, and other, smaller sea life to the kids.
Lauren Vealy, also in seventh grade, said the kids get to decide which fish they want to paint.
“We all got to choose our different fish. Like Marina down there, she’s doing a Portuguese man ‘o war,” said Vealy.
For inspiration, Johnson uses a large poster showing a variety of Atlantic fish species.
“They’ll choose – ‘I wanna paint this fish,’ or ‘I wanna do a striped bass, a stingray. So they pick the fish they wanna sketch. And then they’re gonna cut their sketch out and use it as a stencil, put it on the wall, and proceed to paint,” he said.
6th-grader Emma Wright got interested in participating as she walked down the hall each day to get to class. She eventually asked Johnson about the painting group.
“I wondered if I could join. He said he didn’t know, because it was only for 7th and 8th. But I am the exception, of course,” said Wright.
Johnson and the kids have been sticking to Atlantic species, although they do take some liberties with color.
“The orange fish that Allie and Lauren are painting really aren’t orange, but we’re gonna bend the rules a little bit, just to make the whole hallway come out at you and seem a little more alive than just the greens and the blues and the colors of the Atlantic Ocean,” Johnson explained. “They can be a little bit grey and dark, so we’re trying to bring it to life a little bit with tropical colors…make ‘em pop a bit.”
In this collaborative piece of large-scale art, there’s a good deal of realism, but plenty of space left over for freedom of imagination.
“The kids are havin’ a good time, and learning a bit about painting a large mural. And now they’re steppin’ back and lookin’ at their work,” Johnson said.
Greg Johnson and his Nauset Middle School painting group expect to have the mural completed by the end of March.