Karen Adams, Special to The Catholic Virginian
Thanks to the imaginations of Roanoke Catholic art students, many people will soon see the beneficent angel that overlooks the Roanoke Valley, her hands holding the sun and the moon and her long wings sheltering civilization and nature.
During most of the past school year, 11 students, under the direction of art teacher Kim Spencer, collaborated to plan, design and paint a 5 by 10-foot portable mural that will be installed in the public area of the Roanoke City Courthouse, the Oliver W. Hill Justice Center, in early June.
“Angelus Stella” (Latin for “Star Angel”), the name the students chose for the mural, is the loving presence that the students imagine watching over the people, animals, buildings, mountains and water in and around Roanoke, nicknamed the “Star City” because of the famed giant neon star atop the city’s Mill Mountain.
“The students see her as the protector of our valley, of all the beautiful natural resources that we have here,” said Spencer, adding that care for God’s creation is an important element of the Catholic faith. The project was part of the school’s mission to foster a sense of community through service to others.
The idea for the project came about last spring when Roanoke Circuit Court Judge David Carson asked Spencer’s husband, city attorney Tim Spencer, if Kim Spencer might have an idea about decorating a large, blank wall in the building.
She agreed, and Carson commissioned the work. Spencer knew her students could make something beautiful even though it was a big, challenging space.
“This was on such a different level,” she said of the mural.
She presented the idea in late spring 2018 and heard from interested students. Late last summer they met to share sketches and ideas about iconic images of Roanoke and the surrounding environment. They then spent a week working all day long. Once school began, they continued before and after school and on weekends, scheduling around homework, sports and other extracurricular activities.
Ranging from grades 8 through 12, the artists were: Bauer Adkins, Meghan Finnigan and Zach Llavore (grade 8); Maggie Meyers (grade 9); Aubrey Adkins, Carolyn Angelillo, Nicole Finnigan and Clara McDaniel (grade 10); Megan Keeley and Seaira Siv (grade 11); and Eloise Chandler (grade 12).
The students spent more than 700 community service hours over seven months (from August 2018 to February 2019) creating the mural, which depicts the angel and Roanoke-area landmarks such as the Hotel Roanoke, Taubman Museum of Art, the Mill Mountain Star, Dr. Pepper and H&C Coffee signs to represent local companies, and St. Andrew Catholic Church, with which Roanoke Catholic is affiliated.
The mural also includes the Roanoke River, the Blue Ridge Mountains, trees, flowers, butterflies, birds, a squirrel and a deer.
Nicole Finnigan, who drew and painted the angel’s face, flowing hair and leafy dress, came to work every day, Spencer said.
She added that the students had to use their whole brains, not just their creative sides.
“They really had to think mathematically as well as artistically, because there was a lot of measuring and counting,” she said, noting some had never painted with acrylics and none had painted on such a large scale. “They learned a lot, and I saw their skills improve.”
Each student contributed ideas.
“I wanted it to highlight the architecture of the area and the work that people had put into that,” said McDaniel. “And also the preservation of nature.”
Using gray watercolor pencils to sketch the outlines and acrylic paint afterward, students had their individual areas to draw and paint while they worked on some elements together.
For example, Keeley did the H&C Coffee sign, Meghan Finnigan did the Mill Mountain Star, Chandler did the sun and moon, and Bauer Adkins did the mountains. Llavore painted the hotel, Meyers painted the birds, and they both worked on the tree. Siv painted the angel’s wings. Everyone worked on the rainbow.
Perhaps most important, Spencer said, was the cooperation.
“I love the fact that there was no competition or disagreement, and they appreciated each other’s ideas,” she said. “They worked so well as a team to accomplish this.”
Angelillo added: “It helped having a diverse group. We didn’t have any issues because we’re all different and we worked better as a whole.”
The size made the work physically demanding, with hours of leaning, stretching and reaching around the canvas, which was spread out on tables. Sometimes they had to stand on the tables to look down at it.
“It got harder to reach around all the wet paint,” said Aubrey Adkins.
On the evening of Monday, April 29, the mural was unveiled to three Roanoke City judges, as well as to students’ families, school faculty and staff, friends and other guests, in the Roanoke Catholic library.
“We see the best parts of humanity every day, and we also see some challenges,” said Carson at the event. “But to see this creativity and talent done by our youngsters – who are our future – warms our hearts.”
Carson was joined that evening by General District Court Judge Tom Roe and Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Judge John Weber.
“As a juvenile court judge, I see things that are hard and difficult, but it’s beautiful to see what happens when creativity comes forward,” added Weber. “It’s beautiful to share in it, too.”
Spencer said the students are pleased with the result, but as their teacher, she is just as proud of the students themselves.
“I was so impressed with their work ethic and their sacrifice,” she said. “They worked so hard to plan and complete this project.”