Under the Sea & Rainforest Murals at Rowlatts Hill Primary Academy

Oct 18

‘I’m gonna get by, with a little help from my friends’

Before I’d even completed the Gladiator project I’d been invited to return to Rowlatts Hill Primary Academy, the transformation of a long corridor being the tempting prospect. At the time of being asked it felt like a long way off into the future, I had a daunting sports hall project at Fulbridge Academy to fulfill, as well as ‘Heroes’ and ‘Storybook’ themed murals promised for King’s Cliffe Primary before I could start thinking about commuting along the A47 toward Leicester again.

Nevertheless, time ticked by and as the last of those projects neared completion I arranged a design meeting to discuss the germ of an idea I’d had circling in my head during the previous weeks. On 28th September this concept was discussed and a plan was set in motion to transfigure a very bright and magnolia painted corridor with an ‘Under the Sea’ and ‘Rainforest’ theme.

This would be my fifth project at Rowlatts Hill. Casablanca was my first in 2015 and, as Rick said in his last line of that movie, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. This project could have followed a similar pattern to previous projects, this time however I was tempted to try something different. Rather than focussing only on painting the walls, I had a feeling that more could be achieved. I’ve developed a good relationship with the school and the previous Gladiator project had given me much food for thought, so asked if I could solicit the assistance of Site Manager Matt Hassall.

During the course of the last few years Matt has become a good friend and his talents are many and varied. He has been responsible for several sculptural elements around the school and it was he who concluded the Gladiator project, installing wall and floor furnishings in the Roman themed cloakroom and laying a grass carpet along the grapevine adorned fields of the corridor. By enlisting his skills I felt certain we could ‘push the envelope’ a little.

Principal Jay Virk has shown me a lot of trust, allowing me the opportunity to become more adventurous with each project, previously however I’ve presented her with a decent design visual so she had a chance to picture how the finished piece might appear. This time however, as there were so many ‘unknowns’, I couldn’t do this, and at the time of our design meeting my ideas were either still in my head or very much ‘in the air’. Like Yves Kein she took a big leap of faith. Although I could present a basic idea of my plans there were so many ingredients that could prove to be a movable feast, I knew much of it would have to be resolved as it went along. Drawings presented at the design meeting therefore were ‘sketchy’ to say the least, even though I supplemented my concept with a substantial collection of photocopied reference.

Jay wanted the ‘Under the Sea’ corridor to play a part in illustrating a story, to reinforce David Attenborough’s Blue Planet message relating to our responsibilities for the future of our planet and to sustain his campaign against plastic pollution in the sea. A corridor is seen in transit and so my design concept was one which could be read as one moved along it. There is a ‘bad’ and a ‘good’ end, the change occurring as one progresses. The palette gradually changes from bright, to dark and dull. Sea creatures change from being healthy, to facing a life and death struggle. Sea bed coral changes from being colourful, to colourless. Remains of ancient educated civilisations are revealed, possibly engulfed long ago due to rising sea levels. On the one hand these are sites of intrigue with potential for archeological research, whereas more recent finds could simply be considered as ‘debris’, be it accidental disaster, the wreckage of war or the dumping of waste.

In creating the sensation of being under the sea Matt would play a major role. Both walls and ceiling would be an integral part of the plan, with the surface altered to generate the impression of craggy rocks and a rowing boat with oars being included as three dimensional elements. Lighting would be changed too, from a line of three static formal white lights to a mixed collection of nine white, green and blue lights housed on movable arms which could be individually twisted to aim rays at different areas of the corridor. Finally, with a scuttled galleon included within the composition it would only be appropriate for the very stark white radiator to also be painted, disguised to feature a lost pirate treasure chest.

At the half way point along the corridor, between the ‘Sea’ and ‘Rainforest’ sections, is an area where there are two double glass doors. Rather than it being a ‘dead zone’ and a sudden leap from one theme to the other I felt it would be important that this small area created a smooth transition, even though there was a very limited amount of wall surface, the link relying mainly on what would be painted on the ceiling.

My intention was to paint a tree canopy which would encourage one to look up and around above the large glass doors, with Matt creating a waterfall to walk under as one moved between this area and the ‘Sea’ corridor. With a steep rock face and the suggestion of crashing water painted within the doorway entrances, this is an example of the improvisation which would be required and which could only be properly resolved once the project was underway.

The tree canopy ceiling painting would then introduce the ‘Rainforest’ itself, beginning with a lake or pond to link with the water theme and the density of the forest increasing the further one ventured along the corridor. It would begin as a friendly and inviting ‘Gruffalo’ wood, but gradually become a darker space, one perhaps more likely to be associated with a ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ related theme. With Matt’s help and expertise, sprawling tree shapes would sprout from the walls and across the corridor as sculptural elements, and the lighting would change from white to a cocktail mixture of white, red and green. In addition the ceiling would not only be painted but also covered with large camouflage nets to create an undulating effect, the netting helping to cast a series of tree canopy-like shadows on the walls. These nets would then also be dressed, with imitation leaves and pieces of wool.

Three single and two double doorways are located within this area and my plan was to disguise them all, using the temple of Ta Prohm at Angkor Wat as my model. The ‘Sea’ corridor featured an ancient civilisation which as time passed had disappeared and I wanted something similar for this composition too, that another ancient and educated civilisation had once prospered, had disappeared and its neglected buildings been reclaimed by nature. I wanted to illustrate that all life is transitory, that we all have a responsibility for our future and are still a part of this ongoing cycle.

The plan was approved, the corridor stripped of its noticeboards and the walls prepared for painting. On 29th October I arrived to find a long bright corridor waiting for me and it looked even longer than I’d remembered it on my previous visit. It would be an honest admission to say that I felt more than a little overwhelmed. Following my warm, Rowlatts Hill open arms ‘Welcome Home’ reception at the door, I made myself a cuppa and was soon left alone in the corridor to ponder the task ahead of me.

Deep in thought, I prowled to and fro along the full length of the corridor like a caged animal trying to build an image of the finished piece in my head. There were so many questions still unanswered, but nevertheless, the mental image looked okay. I needed to make a start, but where? The space felt so very big. I took a deep breath, thought of my favourite lines from chapter 64 of the Tao Te Ching, picked up a piece of charcoal and started making a smudgy mess on a wall.

” The giant pine tree

grows from a tiny sprout.

The journey of a thousand miles

starts from beneath your feet”.

Rowlatts Hill Primary Academy, Balderstone Close, Leicester LE5 4ES