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April 07, 2004

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Publication Date: Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Cover story: Connecting to China -- Artists from Hillview Middle School create colorful mural for Beijing wall Cover story: Connecting to China -- Artists from Hillview Middle School create colorful mural for Beijing wall (April 07, 2004)

By Marjorie Mader
Almanac Staff Writer

Fifteen young artists from Hillview Middle School in Menlo Park are in Beijing, China, with a mission.

They're transforming a concrete wall at the China National Children's Center in Beijing with a colorful mural of endangered animals -- a work that they designed at Hillview. Painting with them are their counterparts -- young artists from China -- in this art and cultural exchange.

The idea for this Hillview-Beijing project came from William (Billy) Ming Sing Lee, a retired Portola Valley architect who was born in Shanghai and came to the United States at age 14. When Mr. Lee saw a photo of the Hillview students' mural of a vibrant garden of flowers, which appeared on the Almanac's cover last June, he was so impressed that he called the reporter and wanted to get in touch with Terry McMahon, art specialist at Hillview.

"I went to look at the creation and came back excited and inspired," says Mr. Lee. "An idea sprang from my mind. How about making arrangements to enable Hillview students to visit China and paint murals together with Chinese students?"

The idea took shape with the enthusiastic support of Ms. McMahon, her art docents Wendy Ellis and Sue Scheid, Hillview Principal Mike Moore, and other parents and teachers.

Mr. Lee developed a proposal called "C2C-C2C" -- it stands for Children to China and Connecting to China -- and used his connections in China to locate a site for the mural and make arrangements there. He is a director of The 1990 Institute, a nonprofit U.S.-based action-oriented think tank organized after the Tiananmen Square uprising in Beijing.

Mr. Lee coordinated the institute's U.S.-China Children's Art Project last year when more than a million Chinese children submitted their art with the knowledge that the 100 winning drawings would travel on exhibit in the United States. This unusual collection of children's art was displayed at the Coyote Point Museum in San Mateo, and now is at the Capital Children's Museum in Washington, D.C.

Hillview trip

To plan the Hillview trip during the school's spring vacation in April, Ms. McMahon contacted EF Educational Tours, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which has arranged school-related tours for Hillview students and teachers to France, Spain and Washington, D.C.

She told her advanced art students about this "opportunity of a lifetime," and announced the proposed trip to parents at back-to-school night last fall. She also sent fliers to her former eighth-grade art students, now in high school.

On the trip are 15 students -- 10 seventh- and eighth-graders and five Hillview gradates now in high school -- and 17 adults, including Ms. McMahon, docents Ms. Scheid and Ms. Ellis, art assistants Megan McMahon and Hope Scheid, and parents.

They flew to Shanghai April 2, will spend two days in Xian, and then fly to Beijing to paint the mural. They'll return home April 13. The 12-day all-inclusive package, complete with bilingual tour guides, is $2,600 for students and $3,000 for adults.

In Shanghai, China's largest and most cosmopolitan city, the group will see the extraordinary collection of Buddhas sculpted from white jade; stroll through the Yu Garden, a showplace of classical Chinese landscaping; and sail down the Huangpu River to see views of both old and new Shanghai.

The focus in Xian will be seeing the terra cotta soldiers and an IMAX movie describing the excavation of these life-size figures.

In Beijing, painting the mural with their Chinese peers takes center stage, but there's time to see sights -- the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square -- and to walk along the Great Wall.

"We have a really flexible and focused group," says Ms. McMahon. "They have a feeling of what they want to accomplish."

Hillview mural

Coordinating a student mural project is not new to Ms. McMahon. It's become an annual tradition at Hillview. Her advanced art students design and create a mural at Hillview each spring to add color, beauty, and often whimsy to the school's exterior walls.

Creating a mural for a 60-foot-long, 3.5-foot-wide curved wall in the park-like setting far away in Bejing and sending a mock-up was uncharted territory. She and her students rose to the challenge.

Mr. Lee had seen the magnificent carousel animals that Hillview students had designed and thought they would be perfect for the wall. He added a cautionary note: "They cannot have poles or saddles because it would be an insult to have constrained animals."

Everyone in the advanced art class designed, drew and painted a carousel animal. The 15 animals, destined for the Beijing wall, are all endangered species in motion: A tiger creeping, gazelle leaping, kangaroo hopping, rhino kicking, giraffe running, a lion roaring and, of course, a panda ambling.

Complex process

The process used to create a mural has many steps, and is time-consuming. A paper mock-up to the scale of the wall in Beijing is made. Each original animal design is placed on an overhead projector and enlarged to fit the wall dimensions, creating a pattern on butcher paper. Students then trace the animal, outline it with black felt plans and then cut out the animal.

In Beijing, before the Hillview contingent arrives, the Chinese students will transfer the animal patterns to the wall by blackening the underside, a procedure that works like carbon paper.

The Chinese counterparts will be accomplished artists who received training in after-school programs because art instruction is not part of government-run schools' curriculum, says Ms. McMahon.

The Hillview artists had to choose a limited palette of paints that could be blended or mixed to create many colors because the amount of paint they could take to China was limited. The "models" the students painted at school will be posted as a color guide above each animal's position on the Beijing mural.

Mr. Lee took the large paper mock-ups of the animals and the paint to Beijing April 3. He will work with the Chinese to see that the wall is primed and then lay out the drawings, according to the plan. "I'm a big, old volunteer," he says. "I may be helping them carry water."

"I think the mural will be fabulous," says Ms. McMahon, "but we really don't know how it's going to turn out," because there's always the unexpected. She says she couldn't have taken on this monumental project without the help of Ms. Ellis and Ms. Scheid. Ms. Ellis handled the paper work, getting passports and visas, and seeing that everyone had hepatitis A vaccine.

Eighth-grader Jeff Hester, an artist and athlete, says, "I'm the only guy going, but I've never been intimidated." He and his mother, Diane Hester, will work on videotaping highlights of the trip, as will Hope Scheid and parent Kim Carlisle. Ms. Carlisle plans to take photos. Gary Condor, the school's computer/tech person, will help produce a video of the trip when they return to Hillview.

"I'm lucky because my mom is coming along, and she knows Chinese," says Amanda Lee, the only student who has been to China. "When people ask me a question, I can say I'll ask my mom." Her mother, Sakam Lee, is a professor of Asian art at De Anza College.

Sisters Marika Walter, an eighth-grader, and Corey Walter, a junior at Menlo-Atherton, plan to have an unusual shared experience. "We're going everywhere, and I can't wait to see the terra cotta soldiers" unearthed at Xian, says Corey, who did a report about them. When she was at Hillview, she worked on two mural projects -- the vibrant jungle creation and the marine mural with the killer whale.

Another daughter-mother combo on the trip is Sara Tannenbaum, who graduated from Hilllview last June, and her mother, Meryl Urdang. PTA volunteer Cindy Folker has joined the tour even though she doesn't have a student in the group.

The tour leaders are delighted that Rebecca Mazonson's mother, Mary Ann Zetes, is coming along. She's a doctor.

E-mail Marjorie Mader at

Armchair tour of China

To see the highlights of the Hillview art trip to China without leaving Menlo Park, save the date: Thursday, April 22, at 4 p.m. in the school library.

A video of the trip, produced by students and parents with help from computer/tech coordinator Gary Conder, will be shown. Students and adults will give their view of the trip and answer questions during a panel discussion. A reception will follow.

"Anybody can come," says librarian Sue Krumbein, who is coordinating the afternoon program.

Off to China

Here's the names of the 15 student artists from Hillview who signed on for the China trip, and are now in Beijing: Nora Bernard and Amanda Lee, seventh-graders; Jeff Hester, Kelsey Kienitz, Ariane Khalfa, Rebecca Mazonson, Ally Parkinson, Marika Walter, Vika Zhukovitskiy and Marisa Zuk, eighth-graders; Shayna Carp, Suzy Kopf, Anna Glantz, Corey Walter and Sara Tannenbaum, recent Hillview graduates who participated in the school mural project and are now in high school.

Hillview art specialist Terry McMahon, docents Wendy Ellis and Sue Schied, and art assistants Megan McMahon and Hope Schied are there, too, along with 12 other adults, parents, aunts and friends.

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