About 20 WSU students along with faculty project leaders and Kamiak Elementary principal Evan Hecker stand in front of 2 murals depicting the molecular vision of thermochromatic pigment.Imagine a large, outdoor painting that changes colors when warmed by the sun or by the touch of child’s hand and shifts hues again in cool rain and winter’s chill.

Two such temperature-sensitive paintings are among four vibrant murals created this fall at Kamiak Elementary School in Pullman through a unique collaboration between WSU artists and chemists.

“Our goal was to create an outdoor mural, inspired and informed by chemical science, that is both educational and interactive,” said Amy Nielsen, clinical assistant professor of chemistry, who co-led the project with Joe Hedges, assistant professor of fine arts.

The professors worked with master of fine arts student Kelsey Baker, chemistry graduate student Aaron Hendrickson, and about 25 students in Hedges’s advanced and intermediate painting class to create the murals designed by Baker and Jiemei Lin, a graphic artist at WSU.

A young boy stands in front of an outdoor mural depicting a stylized kestral among flowers.
Kamiak 4th-grader Brock Pollestad stands before one of the new murals. Click on the photo to see more images of the painting process.

The incoming student class at Kamiak Elementary and members of the community voted for their favorite of three designs presented by the mural team in early August. The final 20-by-12-foot paintings feature two of Lin’s images of a kestrel, the school mascot, and two of Baker’s visualizations depicting the dynamic molecular chemistry of thermochromatic – or temperature-sensitive – paint.

Art serving multiple roles
The walls originally were constructed as ball walls for play, but they now also serve an important role as art for inspiration, education, and pleasure, said the school’s principal Evan Hecker.

“We totally intend to use them as a teaching tool. Our students are already learning about the kestrel, a bird most of them aren’t familiar with, and soon they’ll start seeing the colors change with temperature and light. The science behind that is pretty amazing. The kids are really intrigued and we’re all learning,” he said.

“It’s been wonderful to have the children sitting out there during recess, watching us sketch out the designs and then ask questions and offer their own ideas while we were painting,” Baker said.

Now the youngsters – or anyone else – can touch the walls and make their own temporary marks on the unique works of art she designed by using only their fingertips or a brush dipped in ice water or with a handful of snow, she said.

Two people put their hands against the paint on a large, outdoor mural.
Community members try their hands at making the colors change.

“It was a powerful learning experience for all of us, but the best part of making these murals was the reaction from the kids,” Hedges said. “The whole mural team is extremely pleased and honored that our work will provide students of all ages an opportunity to learn about art and chemistry and will become part of the permanent identity of the school and community.”

The innovative paintings were dedicated to the elementary school and surrounding community on October 21, 2019. Members of the mural team were on hand to describe the educational project and answer questions about the science and art involved in the paintings’ design and creation.

The Kamiak Art and Chemistry Mural project was funded through an Interdisciplinary Research and Innovation seed grant from the WSU College of Arts and Sciences.

See more photos at the CAS photo gallery.

Top image: Students and faculty from fine arts and chemistry stand in front of one of the Kamiak Elementary murals at the October dedication (photo courtesy of C. Meehan).

By J. Adrian Aumen, College of Arts & Sciences Communications