Collage of student self portraits reflect a diverse community

TONEY, Ala. - Van Gogh, Picasso, Dali, Da Vinci. The list of famous artists who have done self-portraits is long. But there’s no shortage of talent in the art work we found in a Madison county school hallway.

Sara, Chris and Ameracle are 5th graders at Madison Crossroads Elementary, the largest elementary school in the Madison county system. The school is full of young artists. More than 900 of them to be exact.

“I drew myself in a positive way,” Sara told us. “I like to keep things on the bright side.” Chris’ picture showed him wearing his favorite brand. He said, “Almost every day, I wear joggers and a Nike shirt because I like sports.” But Ameracle’s self-portrait was more of a reflection of her family than just herself. “It's a picture about me and my sister,” she said with a smile. “She's my inspiration. That's why I drew that.”

The self-portraits mirror a diverse community. “Yeah, we have immigrants. We have minorities. We have boys, girls, and young, old. It's a really nice mix,” Natalie Balentine told us. She’s the art teacher. “Through the years, I've never been able to feature every child's artwork in the hallway,” she said. So she started looking at the bigger picture.

“With 950 kids, this was a way for all of them to be spotlighted in a small area and that represented their community,” she said. “And this is their community.” As students finished their drawings, she’d take them home with her at night. “Between 850 and 900 little portraits of children and cutting them out and mounting them,” she said. She put them on poster boards and made a collage. “It was worth it,” she added. “It was wonderful.”

“Those are 900 small pieces of art from four and a half year olds to 11 year olds,” Balentine said. And each has a different story. Their art teacher smiled and said, “I recognize most of them and their personality speaks through their little drawings there.” Each time you look at the 6 by 16 foot collage, you see something new. When I asked Balentine what she sees in the work, she said, “It's such a cliché to say the diversity but really, I see the sameness. I see just a bunch of smiling, for the most part, children looking out at the world. I love it.”

Natalie isn’t sure what’s going to happen to the collage at the end of the school year. She’s hoping someone will donate some Plexiglass to protect the piece so they can leave it up for others to enjoy in the future.