Forming the Future: Cultivating art at Immaculate Conception School, Lowell

LOWELL -- Every year the eighth graders at Immaculate Conception Elementary School in Lowell band together to create an artistic masterpiece.

Under the guidance of the school's art teacher, Alyce Gavriel, the eighth graders break into groups to recreate famous masterpieces on a ceiling tile.

"We hang these tiles right in front of the principal's office the year they graduate as a way of showcasing their talent," explained Gavriel. "After we take them down, we hang them elsewhere in the school on the ceiling."

The result is "basically what looks like a museum on the ceilings of our school," Gavriel added.

"So many people come to our school and are caught by surprise at the beauty of our ceilings -- they walk around the building looking up," she said.

"I've had eighth graders who are really astounded at what they can do," she said.

The ceiling tile project is the culmination of the art curriculum Gavriel has been building for the past 11 years -- one that goes far beyond coloring.

Beginning with the preschoolers, Gavriel introduces students to great works of art from the likes of Monet, Matisse and Seurat. She then teaches them to create their own works of art in the style of the artist.

"I break down the artistic style into simple steps," Gavriel said, "and then suddenly these artistic styles and these works of art are not all that intimidating."

Gavriel then reintroduces the artists at different grade levels throughout the child's experience at Immaculate Conception School.

"The hope is that a lightbulb will go off in their head, and the child will say to themselves, 'Hey, I know that artist already!'" she explained.

She also teaches the importance of art in different fields -- such as advertising and business.

"I try to engage them at all levels," she said.

Gavriel begins the school year by doing a school-wide still life project. This year's still life subject matter was a Dum Dum lollipop. Students were encouraged to draw their lollipop in any way they chose -- wrapped, unwrapped, stylistically, crushed.

"It is very interesting to see what the students do with their still life drawing," she said. "It's also great to see the students' styles evolve over the years."

At the end of the school year, Gavriel puts on an art show displaying the students' works.

"Every student has two or three pieces of art displayed," she explained. "So, when you think about the fact that we have over 350 students, that's over 1,000 works of art."

Rather than group the art by grade, she mounts each piece individually and prints a "museum card" with the child's name, the purpose of the lesson and the grade of the artist.

"I do it that way because that way everyone goes and looks at everything -- not just the grade their child is in," she explained, noting that the on ly exception is the still life drawings.

"I group those according to grade because it is really fascinating to see their artistic eye develop across the different grade levels," she said.

Gavriel praised the support given by Father Nicholas Sannella, pastor of Immaculate Conception Church, as well as Catherine Fiorino, principal of the school.

"They have both been so generous to me," she said. "Without their support, I wouldn't be able to do what I do with these kids."