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      Connected | June 2, 2021

      Salem elementary school students create large-scale mural at PEM

      Alyse Diamantides

      Written by

      Alyse Diamantides


      Hundreds of four-by-four-inch squares arranged in a rainbow mosaic stretch across the large windows of PEM’s new wing on Essex Street.

      The colorful mural, including a shimmering sun and complementary moon, celebrates the 10-year anniversary of the community service initiative Art CAN Make a Difference.

      Students across Salem public elementary schools have been diligently working for the last month with their teachers on this collaborative art project, both in the classroom and at home. Escaping from digital screens, they were eager to pick up glue and glitter and create something entirely their own, says Mary Tuttle, an art teacher at the Saltonstall School. “The kids embraced the project, and it was a wonderful way to return to the classroom this spring.”

      A teacher works to assemble the multi-paneled design at PEM.

      Each individual square of construction paper is assembled by the colors of the rainbow and will be displayed in the windows at 161 Essex Street through mid-June. The installation also kicks off Salem Arts Festival, running June 4–6.

      A teacher works to assemble the multi-paneled design at PEM. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

      The aim is to help heal, nourish, connect and celebrate through art. Phrases like “You are amazing,” “You are loved” and “Be kind” are sporadically placed between the abstract designs. The visual experience is accessible to all, regardless of the language you speak, and is approachable to those who might not have been to a museum before.

      Art CAN Make a Difference launched in 2011 when Tuttle and fellow art teacher Paige Covello from Horace Mann Laboratory School began tossing around ideas of how to design a project that combined community service with art. They settled on an art show where the price of admission would be a can of food. After cleverly naming the initiative and receiving a grant from the Salem Education Foundation, they partnered with PEM to host the first Art CAN Make a Difference event at the museum.

      The biennial program is an opportunity for students in grades kindergarten through fifth to create an original piece of art centered around a theme and have it on view at PEM in a pop-up exhibition. Themes over the years have ranged from pop art and impressionism to identity, nature and abstract expressionism. Coupled with a reception, silent auction, musical performances and art activities (in non-Covid times), the initiative helps collect and donate hundreds of canned goods and non-perishable items to the city’s food pantry, The Salem Pantry.

      Art Can at PEM 2019. 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert
      A look back at the 2019 Art CAN Make a Difference in PEM’s Atrium. Photo by Ken Sawyer/PEM.

      When the pandemic hit, Tuttle and Covello knew they had to keep the tradition going in 2021 and mark their milestone anniversary. “This year’s exhibit is totally different than anything we’ve ever done before,” Covello explains. After many brainstorming sessions with the education team at PEM and delays due to Covid, it was decided that a window display is a safe, socially distant alternative to an art party in a crowded museum atrium. “It still has the same theme at heart: to give kids the opportunity to give back and help other people in their community,” Covello adds.

      Mary Tuttle works with Paige Covello and Michelle Oster during the installation in May.
      Mary Tuttle works with Paige Covello and Michelle Oster during the installation in May. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

      Using these vibrant colors in this mural helped Covello recognize the beauty in the small things each day, she says. “I’m glad we chose this motif because it gives people a chance to think about color and how much it adds to our world.”

      Maintaining close relationships like these are important between PEM and local teachers and students, says Martine Malengret-Bardosh, PEM’s connected learning developer. “The teachers really put everything into this,” she said. “I can’t wait to see the finished piece and have the students come see their art up in the windows of the museum.”


      In previous years, the cost of admission to Art CAN Make a Difference was a can of food. In keeping with this tradition, people are invited to donate to The Salem Pantry. Make a donation and learn more about this important community organization here

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