Artist paints students reading for ‘Paint a Reader’ program

By: Kara Szymanski | Shelby - Utica News | Published May 6, 2021

 To celebrate National Reading Month this year, Sarah Chisholm, a first grade teacher at Plumbrook Elementary School in Sterling Heights, partnered with a local artist to bring some joy to her students through watercolor portraits of each student reading.

To celebrate National Reading Month this year, Sarah Chisholm, a first grade teacher at Plumbrook Elementary School in Sterling Heights, partnered with a local artist to bring some joy to her students through watercolor portraits of each student reading.

Photo provided by Amber Joseph

 Students’ parents took photos of them reading at home and sent them to their teacher, and artist Jeanne McCormick turned the photos into paintings.

Students’ parents took photos of them reading at home and sent them to their teacher, and artist Jeanne McCormick turned the photos into paintings.

Photo provided by Amber Joseph

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SHELBY TOWNSHIP/ UTICA — Since lockdown first began, Sarah Chisholm, who is a first grade teacher at Plumbrook Elementary in Sterling Heights, has been trying to find ways to inspire her students and their creativity while at home.

She thought of having an artist create paintings of her students reading their books at home during the pandemic to bring them some joy.

The idea came to her in March 2020 when schools first went virtual and Chisholm was worried that her students would lose their excitement for reading during the pandemic. She was speaking to her friend, artist Jeanne McCormick, who specializes in portrait paintings, and they came up with the idea for the “Paint a Reader” program.

To make the program possible, students’ parents took photos of their children reading at home and sent them to Chisholm. Chisholm sent the photos to McCormick, and she turned the photos into watercolor paintings.

Excitement built among the students as they waited for their portraits.

McCormick said that she wanted to give the students something that they could keep forever.

“It was a big thrill for me to create those portraits. I wanted to do something positive and create something the families could be proud of,” she said in an email interview.

On the day that the portraits were revealed, she said the kids were amazed.

“Sarah has short video clips of the children when they see their paintings for the first time — the videos will melt your heart. She uses a process in which she lays them face down on the student’s desk and, one at a time, the whole class chants, ‘One, two, three, reveal!’ at which time they turn the painting over and see it for the first time. One of my personal favorites is a video of a student named Brayden. When he sees his painting, he is so overcome he immediately puts his head down on his desk. It looked like he had tears! That just about added 10 years to my life! Each response was priceless!” she said.

She said the process to submit the photos was very simple at her end. Chisholm took care of the permission forms that parents needed to sign and return. The turnaround time for each painting was about one to two days, according to McCormick.

“I actually had the parents’ reaction in mind initially, but now that I see (from those video clips) how the students themselves react, plus the parents’ testimonials on the success of the program, well, it just motivates me to want to continue and do more,” she said.

Parents Bob and Kari Collings said that the portraits inspired their daughter, Sammi Collings, to want to read all the time. Kari Collings said that she wished she had gotten the same opportunity when she was a kid.

“I wish I could’ve had something like this done when I was a child; it would have been great for Sammi and I to compare pictures. It is such a special gift that she will have forever,” she said via email.

Nicole Phillips, parent of Brayden Phillips, said they didn’t think they realized how much progress Brayden had made with reading until right around the time the painting was complete.

“I would like to think that this project, as well as the focus and attention from the classroom and his teacher are really what helped move the needle on Brayden’s skill level with reading. He loves to read and spends more time doing this than playing video games, thank God,” she said in an email.

Chisholm said she is incredibly grateful for McCormick and the magic she brought into their classroom through the “Paint a Reader” initiative.

McCormick spent her own money on the materials, matted the portraits and placed them in protective plastic sleeves. She said that she would like to find a funding mechanism that would allow her to do more portraits for classrooms throughout the Utica Community Schools district.

To see all the portraits, visit livingartwork2005.com/paint-a-reader.html.

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