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Volta and his team carefully attach student designs to a building.

Mural Master

Ben Volta talks about making giant public paintings

Volta studies the plans for a mural he’s working on.

Scholastic Art: What is your job?

Ben Volta: I am an artist, and for the past few years, I have partnered with Mural Arts Philadelphia to work with public schools—teachers and students—to create public art.

SA: What is your process?

BV: I use an exploratory process. First, I’ll just sit in the classroom for a month or two. I learn what the students are learning and watch how they respond to what they are learning. Then, the next month, I’ll bring in connections that I’ve made to their curriculum. For example, for one math class, I brought in a short film that related to what they were learning. For a month or two we explore possibilities—inspired by the curriculum and connections—about what our mural might be. I don’t go in with a plan for what we are going to make.

SA: How do you explore possibilities?

BV: In math and science classes, students are often more comfortable talking rather than drawing at first. So we explore possibilities through discussion. We also talk about the space where our mural will be. A recent mural, called Micro to Macro (below), is on the outside walls of a school. We thought about how a highway separates the school from a park and started to draw trees as a way of bringing the park closer. But this was a math class, so we didn’t just draw trees. We drew them with a ruler in hand, using Leonardo da Vinci’s formula for how branches grow following certain ratios.

This mural, called Micro to Macro, decorates a school in Philadelphia.

SA: How do you actually paint a mural?

BV: It depends on the project. For Micro to Macro, I scanned the students’ designs. The students and I manipulated the designs with Adobe Illustrator. We printed out the final design on a special fabric called parachute cloth. The printout is like a paint-by-number, with outlines that need to be filled in with paint. The entire school helped paint the cloth. Then we pasted it to the walls, similar to how you would attach wallpaper to a wall.

SA: Why do you partner with schools?

BV: Art transformed my life when I was younger, and I want to open up that same possibility for young people today. When I was in 11th grade, my English teacher told me that I was on the verge of failing—I had not read a single book for class all year. I remember feeling such fear that I might fail out of school. Art was the one class I cared about. So I asked my English teacher if I could get extra credit for doing an art project about a book we were supposed to read. My teacher agreed. I ended up passing the class and graduating. Because of my art, I got into the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia and later transferred to the University of Pennsylvania. I was lucky because the admissions officers looked at my art, not my grades. The experience I had in 11th grade is why I work in public schools today.

SA: What is challenging about your job?

BV: You can’t stay in the exploratory stage forever. You eventually have to commit to an idea and move forward.

SA: What do you love about your job?

BV: I love how it allows me to explore ideas. I can walk into a classroom and have no idea what we will make, but I know we will make something. I love the unknown. 

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