image of Marin Community Built School Mosaic Mural -Oak Tree Of Life with California Native Wildlife mule deer doe fawns barn owl gray squirrel red squirrel opossum gray fox sleeping in tree red tailed hawk hare rabbit quail hen and quail cock butterflies moths california poppies oak leaves bees hummingbirds

Marin Community Built School Mosaic Mural -Oak Tree Of Life with California Native Wildlife

It was an Epic mosaic project!

Lucinda Lee Katz, beloved head of school at Marin Country Day School, was to retire in June 2017 after 14 years of outstanding service to the school.  The school administrators and staff wanted to create a special going away gift in appreciation of her many years of dynamic service to the school.  They decided to create a mosaic mural in her honor.  I had the privilege of collaborating with them and facilitating this gorgeous community built mosaic mural.  All the staff and students had an opportunity to be involved in the creation of the mosaic.  We estimate that over 600 students (Kindergarten to Eighth Grade) and staff were involved directly in the making of the mosaic.  The project started in December, 2017 and was permanently installed on a wall of the Learning Resource Center building (LRC) on August 2nd, 2018.  See photos of the installation process here.

The Oak Tree Mosaic Mural was a challenging and hugely fun project.  I got to work with an entire K-8 school!  I worked closely with the school’s Art Team to collaborate on the themes for the design and how to logistically include over 600 students to contribute to the mosaic mural.  

Collaborative Context Based Design

I worked with the Art Team to collaborate on a context-based design that included values, symbols, and experiences shared by Lucinda and staff and students.  The design elements came from the school’s cherished beautiful natural setting and the many wild animals living there.  This was to be a community built mosaic so they wanted to give every student an opportunity (during art class) to contribute to the making of the mosaic mural.  

Because the mosaic mural was to be a parting gift dedicated in honor of Lucinda Lee Katz, this gave us the foundational idea for the design.  We started with a central design element inspired from the school’s logo which is a stylized oak tree.  We also borrowed from the idea of a Tree Of Life.  Choosing a large tree as the main design element had the advantage of providing hundreds of students with a chance to create handmade ceramic tile oak leaves and acorns to be included in the enormous canopy.

MCDS logo Oak Tree

MCDS Playground Live Oak Tree

Sketch of Early Design Iteration with Oak, poppies, and quail.

Illustration of Final Design

Installed Mosaic Mural shows the work of over 600 Kindergarten through 8th Grade students

Installed Oak Tree of Life Mosaic Mural shows the work of over 600 Kindergarten through 8th Grade students

Mosaic Design For Community Engagement

The overall inspiration for the design is California grassland with a Valley Oak and native animals.  I was told that Lucinda loves the deer that show up on campus, often with fawns in tow in Spring and Summer. So we included the Mule Deer doe and two fawns as a major element in the design.   The Art Team wanted students to be able to create art that reflected classroom work studying local native animals, insects, and plants.   So we included gray foxes, a red tailed hawk, gray squirrels, opossum, quail, a hare, a Barn owl, butterflies, California poppies, moths, humming birds, and bees. We chose so many animals for several reasons:

  • they are present and loved by staff and students in the natural setting of the school
  • they reflect subject matter students had explored in class and already felt a connection to
  • we needed manydiscrete small design elements so that 600+ participants (staff and all students) could have an opportunity to meaningfully contribute to the mural
  • the variety allowed us to optimally leverage each grade’s skill level from kindergarten to eighth grade
  • some grades could piece large mosaic animals – students could work cooperatively in small teams piecing large mosaic elements for the mural
  • some grades created handmade ceramic tile – allowing hundreds of students to create one tile each as their unique contribution to the mural
  • some grades pieced small individual mosaic elements to be included in the tree trunk
Designing Mosaics for Large Groups

It is always a challenge when designing for a large group of people to make an opportunity for each individual to contribute to the project and still be able to express individuality in the creative process.  School kids like to be able to point at the final mosaic mural and say, “look! i made that butterfly !!!”  Balancing the need for the work of many hands with the desire to honor individual creative energy is one of the challenges in community built art.  

Including many many discrete design elements has the risk of looking too busy and crowded and confusing in the final art work.  Luckily, we had a large canvas on which to compose our design efforts so there was room enough  to include the variety and sheer number of each creature in the mural.  We had more than 80 butterflies, about 21 moths, hundreds of oak leaves, over 20 bees, two humming birds, about 30 acorns, over 60 California poppies, about 20 bark tiles, over 30 diamond-shaped mosaic tree bark tessellations, and over 10 ladybugs.  

Small Hands Big Mosaics

Groups of students worked as teams to piece the larger animal mosaics and their work also had a distinctly individual quality to it in the final outcome, different groups of students had different approaches to their own animal mosaic.  You can see that in the final mosaic animals in the mural.  The third graders mosaiced a Mule Deer Doe and two fawns, a Red Tailed Hawk, and a Barn Owl.  Because these animals were larger ones in our design that allowed these younger students the ability to piece the animal mosaics using larger pieces of tile, making it easier for them to produce beautiful work without the need for exacting precision.  The more detailed work in the larger animals was pieced by third grade students who felt confident in their ability to do so.  We let them make decisions about color mixes, how to piece color transitions, and to negotiate how they would piece the animals as a team.

Big Hands Small Mosaics

The smaller animal mosaics were pieced by the 7th grade.  We chose older students to piece smaller animals because their motor skills and past art making experience would help them succeed in making mosaic in small spaces with no prior experience.  The 7th graders worked in small groups, 2 or 3 students per mosaic team, each team piecing one of the small mosaic animal designs.  The 7th grade pieced the mosaic opossum, hare, two quails, two gray squirrels, a sleeping gray fox, a gray fox in a tree, and a Barn Owl.