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Student Art Club coalesces around community projects

Students in Orchard Park High School’s Art Club sat transfixed as the school custodian peeled off the brown paper wrappers from one canvas after another, revealing his painted portraits of Hollywood stars.

Catherine Deneuve with a Mona Lisa smile so slight it was hard to tell whether it was there or not.

A sun-dappled Jennifer Aniston sitting on the edge of a dock.

“It’s almost like a Renaissance painting,” one of the students said from seats scattered around tables in art teacher Diane Bond’s room.

“It looks so lifelike,” said another.

The students usually see Mark Cavallaro polishing the gray terrazzo tile hallways of their schools. At the Art Club meeting last week, he was their art teacher for the day.

“I start something and I do not stop until I finish,” he said. “I think once I retire you’re going to see a lot more coming from me.”

His experience was a lesson in the life possibilities of art for the 20 or so students in the Art Club.

Last school year some students with interest in art began trying to revive the group. Budget cuts had forced its closing a few years ago. But last fall, the Art Club was officially brought back as a school organization.

“It’s great to have them back,” said Principal Jonathan Wolf. “People are coming to us more now because they’re out there. They’ve always done things around the school. Now they’re kind of branching out to businesses and people in the community.”

The Art Club led to encouraging friendships that Abbie Probst wouldn’t have had otherwise.

“It has definitely given me time this year to spend more time on art work,” said Abbie, the club co-president. “We kind of already started that club ourselves and then we thought it would be perfect to keep that going.”

At college next year, she plans to study architecture, which mixes her interest in art with math.

“We kind of want to leave our mark,” said Elise Miller, the other co-president. “I feel like art kind of opened up new friendships for me. I want to help young students … It really directed me to figure out my future aspirations.”

The students’ ambitions range from tattoo artistry and special-effects makeup to architecture. Their goals are shaped by their experience with fellow club members, projects and conversations with practicing artists like Cavallaro.

After Cavallaro finished his presentation, Elise, Abbie and two other club leaders sat around an art room table to talk about the evolving club and its goals – portfolio building, meeting with working artists, making art for the community.

Since reforming, the club has responded to community calls for artistic help: The owner of the new Spot Coffee that opened on East Quaker Road last spring wanted a mural for the coffeehouse, and the Family Justice Center was looking for volunteers to refurbish a worn dollhouse for a fundraising auction.

The mural project was memorable for how the students had to figure out how to make something as a group. It wasn’t until their preliminary painting of the town’s historic buildings had taken shape that a teacher noticed they were looking off kilter.

They had to start over completely because they hadn’t determined a unifying perspective and vanishing point.

“It was bittersweet,” Abbie said.

“I learned a lot about how important it is to form a team early and find your leaders,” said Liza Tretyakov, who is now a club project manager.

They divvied up work between the 15 students who stuck with the painting through the last few weeks of school last spring. Some shared in the painting of the buildings like the public library, Town Hall and the Spot building, once the first bank in Orchard Park. Elise, known for her talent of drawing people, did the small figures walking the street.

Lisa mixed purples, oranges and reds for a fiery sunset through the trees.

“A lot of the buildings were collaborative efforts,” she said. “It wasn’t just one person’s style. It was mixed in and everyone got their own little place.”

The mural, now hanging across from the cappuccino machine, has a plaque with all the artists’ names beneath it.

“It’s great. I love it,” said Keith Bernard, owner of the Spot franchise and a class of ’89 alum of Orchard Park High. “It was nice to see how much pride the kids took.”

The second group project came this fall when the manager of the Orchard Park satellite of the Family Justice Center sent an email asking the school for help fixing up a worn donated dollhouse. Some of the muralists were among the eight who volunteered to finish it in time for a charity auction.

“I just threw it out there,” said art teacher and club adviser Diane Bond.

She was impressed by how thoughtfully they worked, divvying up rooms and coming in daily to decorate, paint and trim windows in the center’s signature purple.

“It was reminiscent for them,” said Bond. “They were like little kids again.”

Fabric swatches became rugs. A framed postage made art for a wall. Lisa’s pink paper flowers marked the window boxes. The roof deck Abbie stained looked ready for a doll party.

When Tish Brady spotted the clapboard colonial at the charity auction, she wanted it right away, deciding she’d go as high as $200.

“It was just perfect,” said Brady.

As the Art Club volunteers talked after Cavallaro’s presentation, they mulled what it all meant.

Treasurer Kathryn Gossel, who has been thinking of a career in law and politics, was reassured by his story. Art will stay with her whether she uses it to make a living or not.

“Our possibilities will still be there,” she said. “I think when you take a bunch of different people, you can come up with something beautiful.”

As for their next community project, she’s been seeing possibilities in all the school’s unadorned walls. “There’s a lot of white space around.”