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School murals and Ukrainian eggs

Tate Blomquist, Jacob Mesner and Noah Foster work on a Cromwell-Wright School mural. Photo courtesy Ann Carlander 1 / 3
Jasmine and Jerron Ojibway helped paint the blue herons in the mural. Photo courtesy Ann Carlander 2 / 3
Brandon Dickey and Max Hanni make Ukrainian eggs. Photo by Ann Markusen 3 / 3

Walking the Cromwell-Wright Elementary wing this spring, you'll be surrounded by floor-to-ceiling murals in warm soft shades of coral, sunshine, lime and deep greens. Great blue herons fly up from yellow waters. Ducks float amid cattails.

For weeks, on ladders and benches, and sometimes squatting near the floor, students volunteered to paint.

Art teacher Ann Carlander created the design and worked for permission to engage students in the painting under her direction. Carlander, a Wrenshall resident in her second year at the school, teaches all grade levels. The day I walked the halls with her, the murals were nearly completed. Carlander pointed out small features to fix, like a lake horizon that wasn't quite horizontal. On April 20, the school hosted a midday ice-cream celebration of the finished murals.

Carlander loves to teach by engaging students with materials, hands-on.

On a visit before Easter, I watched dozens of students make Ukrainian eggs. Each creates a pencil design on an egg, marking areas to remain white. Heating a stylus in a candle, you melt beeswax and apply it over the pencil lines. In front of you are jars of colored dyes, from lighter to darker shades. You immerse the waxed egg, beginning with the lightest shade. The paint, let's say a robin's egg blue, adheres only to the unwaxed portion of the egg. You cover those areas you want to remain light blue with more wax, and so on, dipping in successively darker colors.

The class was large. I marveled at how engaged they all seemed to be and how they helped each other. They loved seeing how the colors turned out on the eggs. Carlander had recruited several artsy community members — June Collman, Lindsey Lally and Richard Gran — to help a student requesting it. Many students welcomed their coaching.

I marveled at how Carlander could preside over what seemed a little chaotic with such grace and humor.

"All in all, it is very exciting to see the colors and each student's unique designs emerge before your eyes as the wax melts off each egg," Carlander said.

In an after-school visit, I become a victim of Carlander's persuasive powers myself. Before I could take my coat off, she had me sitting at the potter's wheel. I loved feeling the damp warm clay whirl under my fingertips as I awkwardly coached it into something resembling a bowl. Much laughter. I've bought pottery all my life from an uncle and his daughter who run Bayfield's Pot Shop. But I'd never gotten my fingers engaged with clay.

Carlander grew up the daughter of a choral and piano teaching mom and an architect dad.

"I was always drawing on the back of his blueprints," she said.

They moved to Seattle from Northfield, Minn., when Ann was a kid. She played serious classical violin and she enjoyed the Seattle arts scene. She attended Concordia College, married and had a big family including hosting international students.

Among other jobs, she taught school and got her master's degree at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. After her kids graduated, she and her husband lived and taught art and social studies in international schools in Egypt and India. There, she became more interested in traditional culture and arts, especially in countries where the old ways of life were still very much present. She wove mats with ladies in Nepal.

She learned to play a kind of marimba from people in wooden huts in the Borneo mountains.

"If I could start over, I'd become an expert in ethnomusicology," Carlander said. "We have a house full of international instruments I don't know how to play."

Carlander's teaching philosophy leans toward allowing student to "just play with art." She abides by the Minnesota state standards for arts education.

"I am fussy about art," she said. "But with kids, they learn along the way. They naturally work with their hands. Humans are built to create. I don't like to turn the learning experience into too academic of a subject until they are receptive to higher levels of understanding."

Carlander loves good design.

"We can be rosemaled to death," she said. "I personally like contemporary art the best. I enjoy new ways of thinking and unique ideas, like the unusual sound you get when combining old and new music and instruments. Sometimes, I am drawn to simple but exquisite ethnic art. Sometimes it's conceptual art."

An untrained art skeptic myself, I found this challenging. After our conversation, I left feeling what good fortune it is that our Cromwell-Wright kids have such an energetic and caring teacher. Like lots of our other teachers, too. K-12 teachers are my heroes and heroines. Going the extra mile? Yes, that would be Ann Carlander.