Artist Olivia Benson and teacher Jake Reichner are delighted with the new mural at Quilcene School. (Diane Urbani de la Paz/for Peninsula Daily News)

Artist Olivia Benson and teacher Jake Reichner are delighted with the new mural at Quilcene School. (Diane Urbani de la Paz/for Peninsula Daily News)

A Renaissance woman of the school year

Painting welcomes students as they return to classroom

QUILCENE — The 220-student Quilcene School was quiet last Wednesday.

Most youngsters were home with their laptop computers — except Olivia Benson, 17, who walked into the courtyard she’d just beautified.

Her art teacher, Jake Reichner, met with Benson to talk about this odd school year, and Benson’s ability to meet the moment.

“We’d normally be playing volleyball right now,” said Reichner, who, besides guiding an art course, teaches seventh grade — as in all of the subjects.

With no volleyball in sight, Benson spent about five days painting a 4-foot by 8-foot mural of mountains, bay and sky. With its acrylic colors, stenciled ferns and epoxy gleam, it graces the wall facing the school’s central plaza.

“She just ran with it,” Reichner said, adding he wanted his student to feel free to use any and all colors. And Benson did just that.

Though not an experienced painter, she knows how to express herself: She has created pieces for the Port Townsend Wearable Art Show and is a pianist, songwriter and singer — a musician who doesn’t stay inside a particular genre.

With this mural, “I wanted to brighten the courtyard,” she said, “and do something local,” having enjoyed a trip to Quilcene Bay.

Benson went into her project worried it wouldn’t turn out like she fervently wanted it to. Now she’s quite pleased: It’s full of light, as she envisioned.

Quilcene’s elementary, middle and high school are on a hybrid schedule of remote and in-person instruction, and some kids had seen the mural on Instagram already.

On Thursday, “kids are back on campus. It feels good,” said principal Sean Moss.

The new mural “is definitely creating buzz,” he added, noting that amid the many challenges of the 2020-21 term, Benson’s art is a creative response.

Moss taught art before becoming a principal. Reichner’s work — in just his second year teaching at Quilcene School — inspires him.

“So many things in life are catalysts,” Moss said. While no one would have wished for the coronavirus, it has spurred staff and students to stretch beyond the old ways. Educators are seeking to engage kids not just with lectures and paper tests but also with videos, podcasts — and conversation.

“Teachers want to see all of their kids succeed,” added Reichner, so they must tailor their instructing to the ones who do well learning remotely and the ones who struggle mightily with it.

“It’s a lot of work,” long after school has ended for the day, he said.

A veteran of some 20 years in the classroom, he’s concerned about how youngsters, at home with their laptops, can develop their interpersonal relationship skills.

That’s largely what school is about, he said.

Artmaking continues to energize. Reichner’s next project involves using markers and paint colors to turn blank, disposable face masks into small, vivid flags — which this art teacher wants to string together into a large quilt.

People often say, “We’ll get through this” when talking about COVID-19, Reichner noted.

He hopes for more.

Art and craft experiments can document this time — make the most of it — and give people of any age a chance to try something new.

“Right now is still happening. Right now is still valid,” Reichner said.

As for Benson, she’ll graduate next June — though she said she’s not sure there will be a graduation ceremony.

Meantime, the teenager will continue developing her skills as a musician and muralist.

More campus art may well come from the hands of this Renaissance woman: “She can be the artist in residence,” Reichner said.

One more thing he teaches: the middle- and high school yearbook class. It’s another forum for history and creativity — and, yes, Benson is one of the students producing it this year.

________

Diane Urbani de la Paz, a former features editor for the Peninsula Daily News, is a freelance writer living in Port Townsend.

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