Art Meets Literature in Novato School Reading Garden

RG3 Installation, Art Meets Literature in Novato School Reading Garden, Lu Sutton Elementary Reading Garden and Murs, Marin Magazine

Schools are like gardens. Spend enough time in a school, and you will begin to notice the small things, the little moments and interactions that make the ecology whole. And you’ll also notice the omnipresence of the teachers, who, like the sun, make those moments possible.

I can’t imagine a better day than National Teacher Appreciation Day to stop by Lu Sutton Elementary, a vibrant “little elementary school that could” in northern Novato. I came to meet guest teacher and artist Laurie Marshall and to see the school’s brand new Reading Garden Mural up close and in person. The Lu Sutton Reading Garden is a peaceful enclave in the center of the school featuring three wooden reading benches surrounded by calla lilies, birds of paradise and young fruit trees. Previously, the garden was framed on one side by a large grey wall, which is now where the mural lives. 

Lu Sutton Elementary principal Bonnie Barron and Art teacher Laurie MarshallIf ever there were a Miss Rumphius of the art world, it is Laurie Marshall, who has worked as an educator for the past 30 years, much of that time focusing on art as a pathway to understanding, healing and empowerment. Children across Marin County —indeed, children across the country, many of whom have experienced difficult life circumstances — have worked with Marshall to find strength and hope as they honor their natural surroundings and their personal dreams in full-color murals. 

On the day of my visit, the first thing we do when I arrive at the school is to check in with Lu Sutton’s co-principals, Bonnie Barron and Jennifer Dudley. Barron and Marshall exchange ideas about new signage that students will paint for the school. Marshall’s eyes light up and she offers to bring paint and paint brushes. Like the famed Miss Rumphius who spread lupine seeds across the lands, nothing makes Laurie Marshall happier than spreading paint and paintbrushes to children far and wide: “Working with children on these projects is just… it’s just a joy,” she says. “It makes me so happy, like working in a candy store full of their imaginations.”

Inspired school principals like Barron and Dudley make Laurie Marshall happy too. As do creative teachers like Lu Sutton’s Libby Silvestri, Kris Sargent and Kate Mansergh. Lu Sutton’s principals and teachers were instrumental in bringing Marshall, whose work and supplies were funded jointly by the school and Sausalito Art Festival’s Artists Teaching Art program, to help students fill the garden’s grey walls with colorful scenes from their imaginations. 

Lu Sutton Elementary students at work on the muralThird grade teacher Libby Silvestri first invited Marshall to work with her students on a series of smaller murals based on an idea from a book called The Big Orange Splot. In this story by Daniel Pinkwater, the people in a monotone neighborhood begin to paint their homes to reflect their dreams. The original The Big Orange Splotmural project led to another project for a fifth grade class — a larger, single mural in which they portray the greatest aspirations and wild inventions of their dreams: a volcano of kindness, a video game that creates recycling, an “end hunger machine” that magically doubles a hamburger, and superstar soccer team that builds a shelter for the homeless, to name just a few of the magical ideas. The momentum of these two projects then led to the idea of a Reading Garden Mural. 

On my Teacher Appreciation Day visit, the garden is speckled with sunlight that accents the sprays of orange bird of paradise blooms. Beyond that, the grey wall has been transformed into a brightly painted mural depicting the Novato hills and Stafford Lake, a magnificent central tree and characters from the school’s second, third and fifth students’ favorite books. For two months, Marshall and her assistant Lili Lopez, who both work with an organization called the Create Peace Project, came three times a week to artistically interpret the students’ vision, painting central figures from Diaries of a Wimpy KidCharlotte’s Web, The Cat in the Hat, Harry PotterDog Man, Roald Dahl’s The BFGIsland of the Blue Dolphins, among others onto the wall. The mural also features a handful of unpredictable little surprises – a salamander reading in the corner, a multicolored skate ramp, a mysterious optical illusion triangle. “A book is a dream you hold in your hands,” reads a quote by author Neil Gaiman, painted on the trunk of the magnificent central tree. 

As much as is happening in the mural, there is even more going on around it. Beloved kindergarten teacher, Heidi Joseph, leads a line students down the walkway toward the mural. As they get closer to the garden, the energy grows and all eyes turn toward the vibrant scenes on the wall. Shouts of recognition begin: “I see Frog and Toad,” or “There’s Captain Underpants!” Next, along comes Kate Mansergh’s fifth grade class, including many of the students who worked on the mural. While the students are on their way to finish a Mother’s Day project, several stop to proudly point out the parts of the mural they created — a bird of paradise bloom, a floating “Great Escape” book, the magnificent tree. 

Laurie Marshall discussing the mural with students“The creativity on this project was contagious,” says Laurie Marshall. “At first, we were just going to include a small number of classic books, but then these students had more and more ideas for books they wanted to include.” Spend time sitting on the one of the Reading Garden benches and you’ll find yourself entranced in all there is to discover. Like a thriving garden, and like a thriving elementary school, the more you look up close at this mural, the more there is to appreciate. 

Thank you, Marin County educators. Thank you, educators everywhere.

The public is invited to a celebration of the Reading Garden Mural at 9:15 am on Wednesday, May 30 at Lu Sutton Elementary, 1800 Center Road, Novato.

Kirsten Jones Neff

Kirsten Jones Neff is a journalist who writes about all things North Bay, with special attention to the environment and the region’s farmers, winemakers and food artisans. She also works and teaches in school gardens. Kirsten’s poetry collection, When The House Is Quiet, was nominated for the Northern California Book Award, and three of her poems received a Pushcart nomination. She lives in Novato with her husband and three children and tries to spend as much time as possible on our local mountains, beaches and waterways. For more on her work visit KirstenJonesNeff.Com.