VSAA adds color, history to school

Mosaic panels continue school's Columbia River Confluence Project

By Susan Parrish, Columbian education reporter

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photoDave Sams of Advanced Electric Signs, top, and Mike Starks of Soha Signs hang panels of mosaic artwork on the side of VSAA.

(/The Columbian)

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Columbia River Confluence grant projects in Clark County schools

• Fort Vancouver High School: Obelisk filled with tiles representing the past, present and future.n Heritage High School: Mural of hand-crafted tiles depicting the history of the Orchards area.

• Legacy High School: Walk-through representation of the Columbia and Snake rivers with windows to the past.

• Shahala Middle School: Wooden Lewis and Clark Trail map symbolizing connection from the past to the future.

• Thomas Jefferson Middle School: Slumped glass faces of the student body displayed as a river along a stairwell.

• Vancouver School of Arts and Academics: Two mosaic triptychs telling the story of the Columbia River and the Native people.

A Native American fisherman stands poised on a platform at Celilo Falls, ready to catch a salmon, which shimmers in the Columbia River. Many miles downstream, the Interstate 5 Bridge spans the great river.

On Thursday, two mosaic panels featuring salmon fishing at Celilo and the I-5 Bridge joined an existing panel installed last year at Vancouver School of Arts and Academics.

This completes the first of two triptychs comprising the school's Columbia River Confluence Project.

Jeri Swatosh, the VSAA teacher who has overseen the project since its inception in 2004, said, "This project is a celebration of our region's history."

On the panel that interprets the story of the completion of the Interstate Bridge in 1917, a collection of vintage hubcaps -- miniscule compared to modern hubcaps -- have become part of the bridge railing. A hubcap of an Overland, the first car to cross the bridge, is joined by Whippet, Hudson, Nash, Essex Motors and Dodge Brothers hubcaps.

Julie Brown, the project's artist-in-residence and a former Vancouver schoolteacher, undertook a treasure hunt for historic artifacts such as the hubcaps, which she found online.

"I wanted the details to be historic. Accurate," said Brown.

The majority of the mosaic artwork is crafted from reclaimed materials: salvaged stained glass, tiles, dishes and scrap metal. Tiles were handmade with reconditioned clay. The silvery salmon's scales are sections of repurposed vegetable steamers.

"Probably 80 percent is reclaimed material," Brown said.

When she came on board in April 2010, Brown was given the original student drawings, but they were horizontal and needed to be vertical to fit the space of the school's bricked-over Palladian windows. She took elements from all the drawings and created a triptych.

The mosaic project was the first all-school core project. Every student made one tile.

Each advocacy class made a tile together for the I-5 Bridge panel. Students were asked to choose words that not only described their advocacy team, but also were a wish for the future. Inscribed on the tiles are the words collaboration, integrity, exultation, equality and acceptance.

During the eight years of working on the project, students, teachers and parent volunteers learned to cut glass, mortar and do tile work.

"It's a very community-oriented project," Swatosh said.

Parent volunteers Margo Bina, Julie Genz, Lisa Busch and Janet MacGregor, who have been involved with the project since the beginning, were on hand Thursday to help with last-minute details, including painting one more coat of sealant on the back of the panels and scraping the grout with dental tools.

On Thursday, all 10 pieces of the mosaic were loaded from the basement of Divine Consign, 904 Main St., where the project has been assembled over the summer. Then they were transported to the VSAA campus. Each panel stands 14 feet tall and weighs almost 1,000 pounds.

Mike Starks from Soha Sign built the support system and panels. He also donned a hard hat, was lifted high into the air by a crane and secured the panels to the supports he'd attached to the red brick building that began as Shumway Junior High School in 1929. Teachers, students and volunteers watched as the artwork was attached to the wall.

Swatosh said the project is the biggest and most expensive project in VSAA's history. So far, $50,000 has been raised for the project. Another $35,000 is needed to complete the final triptych.

"The Vancouver business community has been generous," Swatosh said. She is hopeful that others will be inspired to donate.

Donations may be made through the Foundation for Vancouver Public Schools, and designated for the VSAA Confluence Project, Swatosh said.

The project began seven years ago when VSAA and five other local schools each received a $5,000 grant for Confluence student artwork.

When it's finished, the VSAA Confluence Project will consist of two triptychs of three panels. The last triptych, with panels of Fort Vancouver, Sacagawea and a drawing from William Clark's journal, will be installed by June 2013.

Susan Parrish: 360-735-4530; http://www.twitter.com/col_schools;susan.parrish@columbian.com.