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Cunningham Park art teacher and students brighten school sidewalk with rainbow mural

When Cunningham Park Elementary School Principal Katherine Le asked if she would paint a mural for the school, Ellen Singletary responded as any job interviewee would: she said yes.

Singletary landed the job, becoming the art teacher for the Vienna school of roughly 400 students, but thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, it took more than two years for that proposed mural to materialize.

With about 70 volunteer hours and $1,200 worth of paint and other supplies, Singletary transformed the long, winding sidewalk that connects the school’s main building to its playground into a rainbow-hued journey through rain clouds, mermaids, dragons and most daunting of all, a replication of the mini-roundabout at Park and Locust streets.

“It looks very good. It’s amazing,” kindergarten student Connor Pollak said on Wednesday (March 30), when students, staff and parents gathered after school to celebrate the project with an “Art Walk.”

The idea for the sidewalk mural preceded Singletary’s hiring at Cunningham Park, originating in a first-grade classroom as part of a project-based learning exercise that all grades were required to develop in 2018.

Inspired by the sidewalk’s resemblance to the layout for the board game “Candy Land,” the students drew designs that could be painted on different squares or sections of the pavement. Some proposals were straightforward, such as tic-tac-toe or hopscotch, while others went a little more wild.

Estefany, who, like her classmates, is now in fourth grade, recalls that she “wanted all of it to be about candy.”

Singletary was gearing up to put the students’ designs together when COVID-19 arrived, and Fairfax County Public Schools shuttered all buildings in March 2020, putting the project on hold.

Erica Lee, president of Cunningham Park’s Parent Teacher Association, suggested reviving the mural this past August as students prepared to return to classrooms after more than a year of virtual learning.

At first, Singletary wasn’t so sure it was the right time. She knew the project would be time-consuming, and since this was her first-ever attempt at a sidewalk mural, she worried it wouldn’t last through the weather and getting trampled by dozens of feet daily.

Le encouraged her to dive in anyway, noting that the mural could be repainted if it wears down.

“It was really nice to have the freedom and this environment to work within where I could experiment,” Singletary said. “…That’s the same thing I hope to do for my students. When you’re creating art, if you’re not making mistakes and failing here or there, then you’re not really going through the artistic process.”

With the PTA providing funding, Singletary came up with a design that incorporated ideas not just from those original first-grade students, but from all grade levels.

Intended to be interactive, the mural starts with a “raindrop hop” — where kids can jump between drops of rain and clouds adorned with the letters of the alphabet — before morphing into a roadway, mini roundabout included.

Then comes a mermaid with the head and torso of the Statue of Liberty, which Singletary says was influenced by the work of artist Keith Haring. In a nod to Cunningham Park’s mascot, the mermaid holds a brown, female cardinal in one hand and releases a red, male cardinal with the other.

The mural features a Statue of Liberty with a mermaid tail and cardinals, Cunningham Park Elementary School’s mascot (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Other sections include hopscotch, a dragon, a rendition of Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” lemons and limes with arrows suggesting that students “twist” and hop from one to another, and animals drawn in black outlines so students can color them in with chalk.

Singletary painted the mural during evenings and weekends from September through November, creating a build-up of excitement as students and staff watched each piece fall into place.

“My kids loved to tell me what she painted and what was new,” Lee said of her first-grade son and third-grade daughter. “We don’t live within walking distance of the school, so I’m not up here all the time. So, it was kind of neat to hear from them how it was progressing.”

Singletary says it was exciting to get such positive feedback from students, fellow faculty, and even passing community members who saw her painting while walking their dogs.

Despite some challenges with transitioning back to in-person learning, particularly for those who had never been in a classroom before August, students at Cunningham Park have adapted well, according to assistant principal Jon Kemmerer.

“When they see something like this — a mural that the whole school has come together [on] — it makes them really want to be a part of this community and become acclimated to the school even better,” he said.

While Singletary mostly painted the mural on her own, students have now started to get in on the act, using chalk to fill in faded and peeling spots. The school plans to make more robust improvements once the weather calms down.

The celebratory Art Walk was especially rewarding for the students who have been involved since the beginning of the three-year journey.

“It was a long time ago that we did those drawings,” Estefany said. “It’s kind of crazy now that we get to see our sidewalk going to the park really colorful and pretty.”

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