If books had wings….

Local Renaissance man Andrés San Millan has contributed yet another work of art to the Red Hook community,
a full-wall mural entitled “The Joy of Learning” that welcomes students at the entrance to the Mill Road Elementary School’s K-2 wing.

The official “unveiling” of the mural was a performance piece in itself.

Erin Hayes, the principal of Mill Road’s primary school, opened the afternoon ceremonies on Sept. 27, addressing approximately 30 attendees, while behind her, many yards of diaphanous plastic blew about dramatically in the wind, sometimes revealing a peek at the transformed brick wall.

“The idea for the mural originated as we were looking for a way to make the entrance unique to our building, while at the same time making a space for the students where they could grow and learn outside of their traditional classroom,” Erin told the crowd. “We wanted a painting that would allow children to explore many facets, not only in the arts, but also in the creative writing area and the family and community themes in our social studies unit. Above all, the idea of the painting was to allow individuals to make their own meaning from the art. It was important to our team that we involve a local artist in collaborating on this project.”

The team is the Building Level Team (BLT), comprised of Hayes, teachers, and parent representatives of the PTA. She suggested the project to San Millan in February, having been extremely impressed with his giant driftwood sculpture “MAN,” which now sits on the lawn at Taste Budd’s Café on Market Street.

San Millan recalled, “When Erin approached me, BLT and the students had come up with a lot of ideas for a mural: welcoming, friendliness, building blocks, uniqueness, Red Hook, the joy of learning. It seemed impossible at first.”

But, he added, “It was a good challenge. They loved my initial sketch; they didn’t want to change one thing. I started painting in June, although I would have liked to paint while school was in session, but there was a wait for the funding from the PTA.”

The finishing touches were in place when school opened in September. San Millan was able to incorporate the existing bricks of the wall into the mural: his painted bricks magically peel away to reveal a fantastical world of learning, with happy children reaching out to books that transform into birds … or is it the other way around?

“I wanted to pretend we could peel away the veneer of reality and see the deeper reality, which keeps us alive emotionally and intellectually,” he explained. The challenge of incorporating the town’s famous “red hook” was solved by turning it upside down to form a question mark, and a row of them form a banister on the stairs of knowledge in the mural.

San Millan enjoys engaging with students — he created a mural with the students at Rhinebeck High School — and is currently doing charcoal sketches of children in the Hyde Park School District, an ongoing project.

Marguerite San Millan, Andres’s wife and co-founder of their Cocoon Theater in Rhinebeck, then requested that everyone in the audience write down their impressions of the mural after it was unveiled. The somewhat awkward process of removing the plastic – due to the brisk wind — took place as clipboards were handed out. “Write down what you see,” she instructed. “This mural is for you.”

A special guest of the afternoon was Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, who said in his remarks, “I see the limitless possibilities that exist in the minds of the kids who walk through these doors. You have allowed the children who learn in this building the opportunity to observe, digest, and be inspired by this mural. As the father of children in this school, I am proud of the Red Hook School District. Everything I love about public service comes from what I learned here. I wish more schools would invest in this kind of partnership.”

Superintendent of Schools Paul Finch also expressed his appreciation. “What constitutes a piece of art? It stretches your mind and gives you new perspective,” he said. “I’ve seen children stand in front of this mural and smile, and that means a lot.”

When the clipboards were collected, Marguerite San Millan read aloud the many expressive opinions of the piece, which included: “Art can make you excited,” “Learning takes you to great places,” and one her husband particularly appreciated, “Staircase of aspiration.”

“We can ‘book learn’ in school,” said San Millan, “but in some way we must walk up the stairs of personal aspiration. This was very much part of my thinking when I worked on ‘The Joy of Learning’.”

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