WSU students dedicate innovative artwork to Kamiak Elementary School, community

Students working on a mural
Members of the WSU mural team work on images of a kestrel, the elementary school’s mascot.

PULLMAN, Wash. – Imagine a large, outdoor painting that changes colors when warmed by the sun or by the touch of a child’s hand and shifts hues again in cool rain and winter’s chill.

Two such temperature-sensitive paintings are among four vibrant murals created this fall through a unique collaboration between Washington State University artists and chemists for public display at Kamiak Elementary School in Pullman. The innovative paintings will be dedicated to the new elementary school and surrounding community on Monday, Oct. 21, at 4 p.m.

The free, public event will be held on the school playground at 1400 NW Terre View Dr. or, in case of rain, in the school library.

“Our goal was to create an outdoor mural, inspired and informed by chemical science, that is both educational and interactive,” said Amy Nielsen, clinical assistant professor of chemistry, who co‑led the project with Joe Hedges, assistant professor of fine arts.

The professors worked with master of fine arts student Kelsey Baker, chemistry graduate student Aaron Hendrickson, and about 25 students in Hedges’s advanced and intermediate painting class to create the murals designed by Baker and Jiemei Lin, a graphic artist at WSU.

The incoming student class at Kamiak Elementary and members of the community voted for their favorite of three designs presented by the mural team in early August. The final 20‑by‑12‑foot paintings feature two of Lin’s images of a kestrel, the school mascot, and two of Baker’s visualizations depicting the dynamic molecular chemistry of thermochromatic—or temperature-sensitive—paint.

The walls originally were constructed as ball walls for play, but they now also serve an important role as art for inspiration, education and pleasure, said the school’s principal Evan Hecker.

“We totally intend to use them as a teaching tool. Our students are already learning about the kestrel, a bird most of them aren’t familiar with, and soon they’ll start seeing the colors change with temperature and light. The science behind that is pretty amazing. The kids are really intrigued and we’re all learning,” he said.

“It’s been wonderful to have the children sitting out there during recess, watching us sketch out the designs and then ask questions and offer their own ideas while we were painting,” Baker said.

Now the youngsters—or anyone else—can touch the walls and make their own temporary marks on the unique works of art she designed by using only their fingertips or a brush dipped in ice water or by using a handful snow, she said.

“It was a powerful learning experience for all of us, but the best part of making these murals was the reaction from the kids,” Hedges said. “The whole mural team is extremely pleased and honored that our work will provide students of all ages an opportunity to learn about art and chemistry and will become part of the permanent identity of the school and community.”

At the dedication, members of the mural team will briefly describe the educational project and answer questions about the science and art involved in the paintings’ design and creation.

The Kamiak Art and Chemistry Mural project was funded through an Interdisciplinary Research and Innovation seed grant from the WSU College of Arts and Sciences.

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