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It started with a blank beige wall and ended with an “ahhhhh” moment.

Well, less “ahhhhh” and more wild applause and cheers, making this a slightly more raucous art unveiling than most.

But that was understandable given that the artists -- all 400 or so of them -- were mostly less than 11 years old and their principal had delivered quite a buildup to the moment when the black covering came off the artwork to reveal just what had become of their work from months earlier.

Paula Baker, principal of Pyrtle Elementary, told the young artists that back when school officials first started throwing around ideas for the blank expanses of wall in the newly refinished office, they wanted a permanent art installation that included student work.

And as Baker explained, being part of a permanent installation is a big deal.

“It’s not like art taped to the fridge and taken down after awhile,” she said. “This is art that stays.”

This is art, she went on, that will be there after all the students sitting on the gymnasium floor Monday afternoon have moved on to middle school, then high school, then beyond. It may be there when they have kids of their own that come to Pyrtle Elementary.

And that’s a LONG time, which made the work they’d done on 2-inch squares of paper in April take on a whole new importance. An event worth more than “ahhhhh” -- one deserving of some outright clapping and a bit of whooping.

The moms who made this happen -- Andrea Scott and Linda Stephens -- told students Monday how they spent their summer bent over  Stephens’ ping-pong table, working out the details of how to make 420 separate pieces of art come together into three.

The idea started earlier, when Scott, an illustrator, and Stephens, who does origami, and who both have children who attend Pyrtle, started brainstorming with art teacher Rosalie Claussen and a student and her art mentor.

They landed on this: Each student in the school would draw a picture with colored pencils on a 2-by-2-inch piece of paper to illustrate a favorite memory of that school year.

Scott and Stephens helped the students brainstorm ideas: watching cocoons turn to butterflies in the classroom, going to Heritage School, watching chicks hatch, visiting the Nature Center, playing on the playground, learning cursive, visiting Morrill Hall, researching papers in the library.

Stephens and Scott collected all the tiny art, took it home and divided it into themes: pictures of playing on the playground went into one file, the third-grade embryology unit into another.

Then they picked all sorts of different paper and created three 3-by-4-foot collages, divided by grades: kindergarten and first grade on one, second and third grades on another, and fourth and fifth grades on a third.

The artist moms added their own touches -- pictures of chicks and Morrill Hall’s Archie, a basketball hoop, chess pieces, a bongo drum, penguins and other subject areas into which they placed the student’s art squares. Scott figured out how they’d all fit together, Stephens picked the perfect paper to go with each section.

They shared the challenges with teachers, because designing something that will artfully portray more than 100 2-by-2-inch squares on a 3-by-4-foot collage is a story problem made in math teacher heaven.

In the end, they wanted something lasting, pieces interesting to look at as a whole and interesting to dissect, individual square by individual square.

After some 225 hours, they had it: collages framed, thanks to the PTO, covered with black cloth and brought to the front of the gym -- for an exceptional “ahhhhh” moment.

Reach Margaret Reist at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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