CANONSBURG – Ashley Van Auken and students in her “Concepts and Creative Thinking” art class at Canon-McMillan High School became so emotionally invested in their latest project they had to fight through the tears to finish it.
On Dec. 14, students were assigned to create a unique self-portrait as a requirement for the concept of “Ordinary to Extraordinary.”
The next day, a gunman opened fire inside Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., massacring 26 people, including 20 children.
After some weekend reflection, Van Auken and her students decided to change course. It would be much more fitting for the topic, they thought, to paint portraits of those who were killed in the tragedy.
They each picked at least one of the victims, researched their likes, experiences, lives and photos, and incoporated them into painted canvas squares. Last Sunday, Van Auken sewed the patches into a quilt suitable for hanging.
“It was a process, but it was worth it,” Van Auken said. “I cried all day putting it together.”
“I wasn’t sure what to expect. To say it exceeded my expectations is an understatement. Everybody has their own style of painting. When you put it all together …,” said Van Auken, her voice trailing off with emotion.
But she didn’t need to say anything else. The attention to detail in each square speaks volumes.
At the unveiling on Monday, the students robustly applauded as Van Auken unfolded the commemorative quilt and jumped up from their chairs to snap pictures with their iPhones. They were proud of their work – and they should be. They appear to have captured perfectly the personalities of the children, teachers and administrators.
Senior Erene Semanderes completed four portraits, including that of 6-year-old Noah Pozner, whose uncle told the Associated Press that he was “smart as a whip,” gentle, but with a rambunctious streak. His portrait certainly reflects that.
She also painted Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung, principal at Sandy Hook who friends and family said was always smiling; school psychologist Mary Sherlach; and special education teacher Anne Marie Murphy, who reportedly died with one of her students in her arms.
“I felt more connected to them after researching them,” Semanderes said.
Senior Andrew Sontag agreed. “You started making a connection.”
Sontag drew Jack Pinto, the 6-year-old New York Giants fan who was honored by Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz. Cruz played his first game after the shooting with “Jack Pinto, My Hero” written on his cleats.
Senior Max Peckich, who painted Dylan Hockley, 6, a special needs student who was learning to read and looked up to his older brother, Jake, said getting the shadows on the face just right was difficult.
“It was very hard because doing portraits, to get the facial features right is sometimes impossible. It’s a very hard process,” Peckich said.
Even though it was the first portait the majority of students have ever done, it was their emotions they struggled with the most.
Senior Sarah Duffey, who painted 6-year-old Olivia Engel, said, “It was nerve-wracking to make them look perfect.”
For Stephanie Holmes, a senior who painted Emilie Parker, the 6-year-old blonde-haired, blue-eyed youngster who was a budding artist, it was especially heart-wrenching, and her voice still wavers with emotion as she talks about Emilie.
“Emilie was a lot like me. It was like drawing a mini-child of me,” Holmes said. “She was so bubbly … Then she just passed away.”
Emilie often carried markers and pencils with her, so Holmes made sure she added those to Emilie’s portrait.
“There was a lot of pressure. You wanted it to look like the person,” Holmes said.
The Christmas break, however, gave the students an opportunity to get a better handle on their emotions. “It was good to step away. They came back refreshed,” Van Auken said.
Sophomore Daniela Pusateri painted 6-year-old Ana Marquez-Greene with a muscial score dancing around her head. Ana’s father is a jazz musician, and she loved music.
“You get attached. You really start to feel for them,” Pusateri said. “It’s one thing to hear about it; it’s another thing to do something.”
To complete the quilt, inspirational inscriptions are interspersed throughout, such as “I put your name in my heart and forever it will stay” and “Precious one so small, so sweet, Dancing on angels feet; Straight from heaven’s brightest star, What a miracle you truly are.”
A square in the bottom left-hand corner of the quilt says “Forever in our hearts,” and the square in the bottom right-hand corner contains the signatures of the students who participated in the project.
Van Auken has spoken with staff at Sandy Hook. She will mail the quilt to the school in a neighboring town, where survivors of the Sandy Hook shooting have returned to classes.
“Now a little piece of us will be in their school,” Peckich said.