There are fewer things sweeter than witnessing what happens when open-minded people get thrown together to think, paint, create and trust in the outcome.  Several weeks ago what unfolded at my children’s school was just this: Magic.

It began as a carefully planned idea: A group art project that would be one of several curricular rotations on Passport Day 2017 – a once a year event immersing K-8 students in the food, culture, and history of a country or region of the world. Conceived of by my talented and tireless friend Lisa Savage (regular collaborator and founding member of my little craft club), this project would combine the use of recycled materials – a common practice among South African artists and craftspeople – with the creation of a large work of art that could live on at the school long after the event, and a focused learning based art activity through which we could cycle a school full kids over the course of one morning.


The Elephant takes shape. Photo by Johanna La Fleur

Taking the charge on this in her usual lovable, easy going yet “I’ve sunk my teeth in and i’m not giving up!” way,  Lisa collected nearly 900 used single serving water bottles from – yes, it was a stroke of genius –  the base lodge at Sugar Bowl ski area in Tahoe over ski week in February. Then she painstakingly cut and removed the base of each bottle to create simple disks with low 1/2″ sides.


Clear disk and painted disk. Photo by Johanna La Fleur

Next she and my game husband Jim drilled holes (using a standard electric drill and 1/8″ bit) into two opposite edges of each disk. These holes would be the zip-tie anchor points for the disks onto the chicken wire & wood frame of the elephant (which, yes, Lisa had fashioned in her garage).


Let the zip tying begin. Photo by Johanna La Fleur

Bring in the kids!


Over the course of next 2 1/2 hours myself, more than a dozen other parent volunteers and Lori Butler (friend, talented designer and member of aforementioned craft club) welcomed, guided and herded upwards of 380 students in groups of 25, in two different art rooms, as they painted 2 disks each with orange, yellow, mango, red and gold acrylic paint. Their marching orders? Take a deep breath, have fun and be inspired by the images of works by South African artists, animals and textile prints projected on the smart boards in front of them. So with little expectation of what the finished work be, they set off painting.


Painting a recycled water bottle base. Photo by Johanna La Fleur

And painting…

Kids made their mark on a few pieces of what we hoped would be an amazing whole….

Call it the chemistry of a carefully planned group activity mixed with the spontaneity of paint, young kids and unfettered creative energy.  This was really remarkable to watch. The kids worked color into the variety of shapes and grooves on their plastic disks, laying paint on all sides of their disks and themselves. Stripes, dots, gold splashes, giant blobs. The organic variation of color and pattern that emerged on the individual disks became an amazing mosaic when assembled on the elephant frame…


Gems…no, painted water bottle bases. Photo by Johanna La Fleur


Photo by Johanna La Fleur

After several hours of continuous zip-tying, chatting and wiping paint off ourselves, our team of volunteers hoisted our still wet elephant into the school gym for it’s unveiling…. even better than we could have imagined. A beautiful work of community art, made by a beautiful group of people.


Side view, plastic water bottle elephant. Photo by Johanna La Fleur

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