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Forming the Future: Teacher builds community through art at St. Mary of the Hills school


Laurinda O'Connor, the art teacher at St. Mary of the Hills School in Milton, stands in front of the piece she designed -- angel wings made up of feathers created by each of the school's students. Pilot photo/Jacqueline Tetrault

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MILTON -- Two multicolored art projects hang on the walls of the cafeteria at St. Mary of the Hills School. One piece, which hangs there year-round, is a panel of painted tiles, its colors arranged to form the image of a cross. The other piece, put up a few weeks into the current school year, is a pair of outstretched wings composed of dozens of painted paper feathers. Above the wings are the words, "Watch me soar!"

Both projects were organized by Laurinda O'Connor, the art teacher at St. Mary of the Hills School. For each project, she had every student in the school make one piece -- a four-inch-square tile or a paper feather, respectively -- which she then assembled to form the whole.

In a Sept. 27 interview with the Pilot, O'Connor said she likes starting the academic year with a collaborative school-wide project.

"It's a way for the kids to jump right into something and also see the results come together," she said.

To make the wings, each grade was assigned a color for their feathers, though each student could blend their acrylic paint to be as light or dark as they wanted.

"Each feather is so unique in itself," O'Connor said. However, she noted, "Putting them all together, the whole is more than the individual."

She put the wings on display in time for the school's open house in September. Many visiting parents and children took pictures posing under the wings.

The cross mosaic was made for Holy Week a few years ago. Inspired by her love of quilting, O'Connor used graph paper to plan the pattern, taking into account how many students were in each grade and assigning a different color to each grade.

Before the students made their tiles, O'Connor gave them an art history lesson, teaching them about pop art -- art featuring popular subjects -- and showing them the paintings of Jim Dine. The completed cross was displayed in the parish church during Holy Week. O'Connor said the students were excited to see the completed project and point out their own tiles.

A lot of research goes into O'Connor's lessons and projects, drawing on different cultures and periods of history. Last year, leading up to a multicultural event at the school, O'Connor taught each grade about a different cultural craft, including Japanese shibori (folding and dyeing), Chinese silk painting, African adinkra symbols, and Native American masks.

"I'm constantly having to research," O'Connor said.

She said she has always liked to express herself in creative ways. Both of her parents were artists. After studying art in college, O'Connor worked in corporate graphic design but was laid off during the 2008 recession. She freelanced and began teaching art to children after school and during the summer. A friend told her about St. Mary of the Hills School, where she has been teaching for the past eight years.

O'Connor said she did not like public speaking, but teaching children gave her the confidence to give workshops and classes for adults.

"It's like I tell the kids, the more you practice, the better you get at it," she said.

Now, in addition to teaching at St. Mary of the Hills School, O'Connor teaches adult art classes, gives workshops, and helps high school seniors prepare their portfolios before they apply to art schools.

She has also continued to create her own artwork, focusing on pastels and entering her pieces in shows. She shares a studio with her mother, who lives next door to her and is still painting at age 92.

"I'm constantly painting with pastels, and I'm always trying to up the kids' projects. So stuff I do in my pastel classes, I'll bring in here, and vice versa. So both kind of feed each other," O'Connor said.

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