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"The more places you will go": Indian Ridge mural captures magic of children's literature

​​Artist Vinnie Alfonso stands in the Indian Ridge Elementary School library.The main wall of the Indian Ridge Elementary School library has many stories to tell.

Harry Potter, author J.K. Rowling's most celebrated creation, flies across the left side of the wall on a broomstick, reaching out with one hand to capture the Golden Snitch. Below him, the titular Frog and Toad characters from Arnold Lobel's iconic books take a stroll by a lake where the protagonist from Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea" sits in a dinghy, waiting for his big catch. Nearby, Roald Dahl's Willy Wonka leads a group of Oompa Loompas and character's from Shel Silverstein's beloved poetry anthology gaze over the spot "Where the Sidewalk Ends."

Elsewhere, the Man in the Yellow Hat searches for Curious George, Calvin and Hobbes set out on an exploratory mission for adventure and Jack begins his ascent of a giant beanstalk. The Cat in the Hat and Thing Number One and Two make an appearance from the world of Dr. Seuss, and a group of children are taking a ride on a magical lion to visit C.S. Lewis' imagined world of Narnia.

At the center of it all, the Wild Things and Max from Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are" and Long John Silver from Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island" emerge from the pages of a giant, hardbound book. One page offers a snippet of wisdom from Dr. Seuss: "The more you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you will go."

 

All of these beloved characters from a wealth of children's literature come together on the wall of the Indian Ridge library in a colorful, vibrant mural painted by artist Vinnie Alfonso. Five years ago, Alfonso painted the piece as part of a commission sent out by the school's staff and parents, who wanted to find a way to transform a blank wall marked by bland paint and presentation screens into something magical.

"We were talking to some of the teachers and staff, and we all wanted to make it a soothing, functional place that was welcoming," said Nikki Maroni, who was part of the school's PTCO when the idea for the mural first arose. "We wanted to make a place where kids could come and read and lounge and relax."

The group decided on a mural as a way to tie together the space, and they didn't have to look very far to find a qualified artist. Rob Alfonso, the school's physical education teacher, had a son who'd progressed through the Cherry Creek School District before moving on to art school in Denver for college. He specialized in large-scale mural work.

"I learned about the opportunity through my dad, who's been here for more than 20 years," Vinnie Alfonso said. "I came to meetings and showed them some of the stuff I do and talked about my ideas. I worked with some of the staff about the basic concept."

Alfonso's preliminary sketches and mock-ups got the green light from the Indian Ridge community, and over the course of three months, Vinne Alfonso reported to the library every week to bring that initial vision to fruition.

"They gave me a lot of freedom. It was mostly my ideas, and they let me run with them," Alfonso said. "A lot of the characters that are in there are from books that I read when I was a kid," he added, pointing specifically to Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes characters and iconic images from Shel Silverstein's works.

Those inclusions were no mistake. Alfonso wanted to create a work that featured timeless cues, literary characters who appealed to multiple generations of readers. From storied fables to more modern stories, Alfonso worked to maintain a universal appeal to the work.

He got a sense that he was making good on his mission from the input he received from Indian Ridge students as he worked every day. They offered suggestions about how their favorite characters should look; they chimed in when they thought he'd missed a critical detail.

"They loved it. Every day, they'd notice something new, even more so than the teachers," he recalled. "One girl was really upset because I hadn't put wings on the Golden Snitch – that was going to be one of the last things I did. She was calling me out, and I had to say, 'I'll get there.'"

Five years after its completion, the mural remains a center of attention and joy for students, and it's supplemented by separate scenes from J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" and the folktale "The Gingerbread Man" that hang on separate canvases near the new Innovation Space attached to the library. A sign on a bookcase encourages young readers to find all of the literary characters included in the mural, and Indian Ridge Librarian Cindy Sanger says that kids of all ages are eager to spot their favorites and learn about new stories, poems and novels.

"Students get excited about knowing and naming all the characters and also discovering new ones. The excitement continues with new families," she said. "I believe it has encouraged kids to check out books featured in the mural and then read other books by that author or in that genre," she added, explaining that when students discover the characters from "Where the Sidewalk Ends," they often go on to explore additional poetry anthologies.

The mural's appeal isn't limited to students. One teacher at the school has a very special connection to the mural. Rob Alfonso, the artist's father, says the mural is a moving celebration of his son's talent. Rob Alfonso, who will retire at the end of this year, is happy to know that his family's legacy will remain strong at Indian Ridge through the years.Artist Vinnie Alfonso stands in the Indian Ridge Elementary School library.

"I knew about (Vinnie's) art, but I got watch him create on a daily basis. It was a neat process," he said. "Now, there's a piece of him here. It's easy to get lost in this mural; it encourages reading and brings excitement to the school."

While Vinnie Alfonso is quick to point out that there are sections of the mural he'd like to expand and revise, he remains proud of this large-scale work from half a decade ago. He points to his own personal connections to the featured stories and characters, and marvels that new generations of readers are exposed his artwork every year.

"It's good to put your signature on something like this," he said. "Every year, this mural has a new audience."

Posted 9/26/2018 8:37 AM
 

"Students get excited about knowing and naming all the characters and also discovering new ones. The excitement continues with new families ... I believe it has encouraged kids to check out books featured in the mural and then read other books by that author or in that genre."

-- Indian Ridge Elementary School Librarian Cindy Sanger, on the impact of artist Vinnie Alfonso's mural.

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