JAMS — When the 2012-13 school year began, John Adams Middle School art teacher Jennifer Joyce did not expect to be painting murals, particularly one that would cross the Pacific Ocean.
Art students at JAMS had a surprise opportunity this year to work collaboratively with a middle school in Kyoto, Japan to create a mural that will join others like it in an international show to promote peace and understanding between different cultures.
Principal Eva Mayoral brought news of the project back when she and 14 students visited Japan over the summer of 2012, and an art teacher there approached her about pairing up for the mural.
It seemed perfect, and the program was even named JAM, which stands for Japan Art Mile.
Japan Art Mile got its start in 2005 with a fairly hefty mission — to promote global peace through the exchange of murals between schools in Japan and throughout the world.
Schools apply through the www.artmile.jp website — there is an option to translate it into English, for those of you not up on your kangi or kana — and are assigned a Japanese school with which they meet in online forums to design and execute a mural.
Once a theme and general design have been chosen, one half of the project begins work on the mural and then ships it to the other school, all the while updating the forum with pictures and information about the project and each other.
A year after the program launched, 16 classes from four countries including Japan, Egypt, Syria and Taiwan participated.
By 2007, that number had grown to 40 classes from six countries. As of 2010, it was 114 classes from 21 countries, from areas as far afield as Azerbaijan, New Zealand and Poland.
The first class from the United States became involved in 2009.
Mayoral approached Joyce in fall of 2012 and asked if the art teacher wanted to get involved with the project.
While the idea held some appeal, Joyce said, the final decision had to belong to her students.
“Buy in is really important,” Joyce said. “This had to be theirs.”
In the end, the kids were excited by the opportunity to collaborate on something across the world, and set about connecting with their new-found partners at the Kizuminami Middle School in Kyoto, Japan.
They were tasked with a 5-by-12-foot piece of material to decorate using special acrylic paints shipped over from Japan.
From the beginning, there were challenges, Joyce said.
The language barrier made brainstorming ideas difficult, despite the aid of online translators. Each school submitted a package of ideas for the mural including a diagram of how it would turn out, but the school that has the mural first dictates what really happens, Joyce said.
Eager students received the mural several months after the project had begun.
The Kizuminami school’s half was a rainbow-hued representation of Japanese culture presented by a smiling girl with rosy cheeks characteristic of manga drawings. Water representing the ocean coursed through the bottom of the painting, from which sprung examples of Japanese architecture and a ninja.
It came with a “care package” of cookies, rice crackers and candy.
For their half, the Santa Monica middle schoolers painted a boy wearing a T-shirt with the American flag. The Hollywood sign in its classic hill setting loomed over a diagonal depiction of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Below was the Santa Monica Pier’s Ferris wheel, and representations of popular American foods including McDonald’s French fries, hot dogs and swirled frozen yogurt.
The students broke into teams of six to work on the painting, with new groups switching out from class period to class period. The paint itself was new to both the students and Joyce — it was a Japanese product with results like acrylic paint but the consistency of water color.
It adhered to the thin plastic tarp on which the mural was painted, however.
Although the process was difficult, it exemplified the power of teamwork even across great distances for Anum Damani, a 13-year-old at JAMS who worked on the project.
“My favorite part of the Japanese mural exchange is knowing that a tiny piece of my artwork is going halfway across the world,” Damani said.
For Olivia Chu, who also participated in the project, it was the realization that despite the cultural divide, the Japanese and Santa Monicans shared much in common.
“You can tell from just looking at the mural,” Chu said. “Our unique styles of art reflect and complement each other.”
Joyce has already heard calls from the kids to do the project again, but she’s thinking about putting her own twist on the concept — a mural exchange right in the school’s own back yard.
“Maybe we could collaborate with other schools, like Lincoln (Middle School), or one in South Central L.A.,” she said.
There’s always something a little special about the knowledge that your work has crossed international lines, however.
“We thought it was pretty cute that one of the kids said, ‘Hey, I touched that mural and now it’s in Japan! That means a part of me is in Japan!” wrote Mayoral.