"The kids call me Mr. Artist," Aaron Horrell said as he dipped his brush into blue paint, carefully studied an illustration from a Berenstein Bears book and began painting the characters onto a cafeteria wall at Jefferson Elementary School in Cape Girardeau.
As students began filing into the cafeteria for lunch, Horrell momentarily set aside his brush to settle a dispute between two first-graders over whether a freshly-painted black and white bear on the wall was a panda or a polar.
"Every day they come in and immediately look for whatever I've just painted," Horrell said. "They really do pay attention. This means something to them."
The once stark-white walls of Jefferson Elementary's cafeteria have become a massive canvas for Horrell, a local artist who began work in January on a PTA-sponsored mural that covers more than 400 square feet and three walls of the school cafeteria.
With books from the school library spread out in front of him for guidance, Horrell spends several hours every day working on the mural during the students' lunch periods.
"So many times artwork is done behind a screen or a sheet. I like that I was able to do this with the kids watching and even helping," Horrell said.
The mural begins near the cafeteria entrance with the traditional fairy tales of Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin and King Midas, but goes on to incorporate contemporary characters such as Scooby Doo, Tigger, Franklin, Madeline and Harry Potter.
As a tribute to the school mascot, each panel features at least one tiger. Horrell said one of the things he concentrated on was mixing the various stories so that characters looked like they belonged next to each other.
In one scene, Tom Sawyer whitewashes the fence of Mr. McGregor's garden as Peter Rabbit makes a hasty getaway nearby. A moat surrounding Rapunzel's castle is identified as Mr. McElligot's pond from a Dr. Seuss book.
For students, the true magic of the mural seems to lie in the details: Eyelashes on the Little Engine that Could, the tiny clouds of exhaust coming from Babar the elephant's red convertible, even the rust spots on the Tin Man from "The Wizard of Oz".
"It's beautiful," said 9-year-old Taylor Marsyla, pointing out animal-shaped clouds in the mural. "I'll always remember it and I know I'll want to come back and look at it after I leave Jefferson."
The students all have their favorite characters. Most of the boys are partial to the painting of Sir George slaying a huge, fire-breathing dragon or the prehistoric scene featuring dinosaurs that once roamed North America.
Girls say they like the illustration of Pippi Longstocking skating with scrub brushes strapped to her feet or Amelia Bedelia hanging light bulbs on a clothes line.
"I really like that it makes the room so different and colorful," said 8-year-old Lacey Myers.
"My favorite is 'Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse', because I read that book to my little sister and it's funny," Myers said, pointing at a small white mouse wearing red boots and swinging a purple purse.
Whether it's answering their questions about the mural or allowing them to paint pebbles on the dirt pathway that connects each of the panels, Horrell has tried to incorporate students into the project as much as possible.
While working on the mural, he's had many requests from students and school employees to include certain characters.
As he completed the first panel, which depicts several castles with a moat flowing into the ocean, Horrell was approached by a third grade student who asked that Christopher Columbus' ship be added in the background.
"I told him to bring me a picture of Columbus' ship and I'd paint it. And he did," Horrell said. "Just think how special that young man will feel years from now when he comes back and sees that ship."
The mural camouflages less aesthetic objects like electric boxes, fire alarms and light switches, and incorporates columns protruding from the walls.
"The whole project has been amazing, and it's really got the kids thinking and talking about books," said Mark Cook, principal at Jefferson.
Cook also contributed to the mural, presenting the idea to have Thomas Jefferson driving a school bus and asking that the space shuttle Columbia be added after it exploded in February.
The painting of Columbia, which shows the shuttle during liftoff, is among the most memorable aspects of the mural for Horrell.
"I think there's something representative of the human race in the painting of the Columbia, something that makes us want to go further and explore," Horrell said. "And after all, that's what this mural is all about."
The mural has become a common topic of conversation among students, who use it to play "I-Spy" during lunchtime. The characters have also inspired many to check out books from the school library.
"It's been a wonderful idea for promoting reading," said librarian Julie Wilson. "And it hasn't just been kids. Even the staff has come to the library asking about certain characters from the mural."
After seeing an unfamiliar painting of a rainbow fish in the mural, head cook Phyllis McLain checked out the corresponding book to take home and read to her grandchildren.
"It's so much more cheerful in the lunchroom now," McLain said. "Every morning as we do our paperwork my coworkers and I talk about the different characters."
After more than three months of painting, Horrell estimates that the project will be complete in the next two weeks.
"The hardest part will be when I'm done and have to leave," Horrell said. "Some of the kids have gotten to think of me as a longtime friend, and I guess after all these months, I am."
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