District News

At Byram Hills High School, empty stretches of cold, bare cinder block wall have become the oversized canvas for colorful, creative and richly woven paintings celebrating subjects like literature, history and chemistry.

The murals of Byram Hills, created every other springtime, are the brainchild of visual arts teacher John Anthony Lopez, who works with another teacher to devise a concept that transforms the curriculum from classroom ideas to carefully crafted artwork. It’s the start of an 18-month process that culminates with a final four weeks of painting.

The interdisciplinary murals are painted by Mr. Lopez’s advanced drawing and painting students, with students from the subject area classes playing various roles like research and image input. The results are arresting, collaborative pieces of hallway art that spark conversation, and maybe even some inspiration as well.

Physics Mural Left Side

“The goal is, first of all, to create a lasting testament to the students and the curriculum, but also to give students an experience in creating public art,” Mr. Lopez said. “It’s something they can come back to in years, and even decades to come.”

Each mural features two to three dozen historical figures or sites, or works of art and literature that relate to the curriculum. The murals are painted near the classrooms where the subject is taught, sometimes enlivening several stretches of wall.

“They’re an expression of the importance that our faculty sees in their curriculum, and in different ways of expressing it and showing it to their students,” Mr. Lopez said. “And it shows a love of the material.”

The sixth mural, the most ambitious one to date, was created this spring. It’s called “The Evolution of Physics,” a nod to Albert Einstein’s book of the same name. The mural covers two 30-foot walls that face each other, and together they feature nearly three dozen physicists from the classical and modern eras.

Physics Mural Right Side

For the first time, this mural features 3D elements by way of a solar system and golden spheres traveling downhill that represent acceleration. It will have an interactive component, with a QR code next to each historical figure and diagram that can be scanned for more information.

Built into this mural are hidden meanings and metaphors left for visitors to uncover. Why is Johannes Kepler dropping the apple onto Isaac Newton’s head? Why is Einstein looking toward Newton across the hall? In this mural, placement of the figures is all relative; the law of gravity is upheld.

“It’s that surprise factor,” said physics teacher Paul Beeken, who spearheaded the mural with Mr. Lopez. “We’re hoping this will be the hook to keep students interested. By design, this wall involves dozens of different themes all running concurrently. That’s the whole point. We want them to come back to the wall four and five times, and each time see something different. It’s complicated on purpose.”

His students have been writing the biographies of the physicists and working on an accompanying website, a project that will continue into the next school year.

The first mural came about in 2008 after a recent expansion to the 1960s-era high school building.

Mr. Lopez was talking with Aaron Lockwood and Marna Weiss of the Music Department, looking for a way to make the band and orchestra space feel less industrial and more warm and student-centered, in a way that incorporated the curriculum. The result was the two-part band and orchestra mural that features the likenesses of Duke Ellington and Ray Charles on the band mural, Mozart and Tchaikovsky looking out from the orchestral mural.

Music Mural

Next came the World Languages mural, which features a cafe and bookshop filled with famous names, landmarks, artwork and books from cultures in the curriculum.

The chemistry mural was painted in 2012 as a view into the lab, featuring the periodic table and scientists as diverse as Marie Curie and Beaker and Dr. Bunsen Honeydew from “The Muppets.”

The World History panorama followed in 2014, depicting Mahatma Gandhi, the Colosseum and the classic wonders of the world among other towering figures. And in 2016 came the literature mural, in which characters and literary figures including Beowulf, William Shakespeare and Harry Potter travel along a winding road following literature from the past to the present.

Even with the rush to class, the murals — filled with images both iconic and sometimes more obscure — get people talking, students, faculty and visitors alike.

“The best part is the conversations that emerge when a couple of people are standing in front of it,” World Languages Chairperson Melissa Stahl said. “The artwork is so well done that the images are extremely accurate, and students can immediately identify the elements.”

Mr. Lockwood, the high school orchestra director, is the only teacher whose mural is inside a classroom. Even a decade later, he still refers to it.

“I find it especially inspiring when I can point to a face on the mural, and make a connection to the composer and/or the style of music being played in class,” he said. “Recently, to generate a conversation about the Mozart piece that we were learning in class, I pointed to the wall and said, ‘Mozart is watching. If he were to comment on your articulation, what would he say?’”

Dr. Beeken, whose passion for this project seems a close second to his love of physics, hopes the mural will generate student excitement around the sciences.

“I’m not trying to turn them into scientists per se, but I do want them to appreciate its importance in their lives,” he said. “I’m shameless in trying to get kids hooked on the idea of learning how science serves them and the framework for understanding our world.”