Graduates-to-be give a gift

Before eighth-grader Ursula Witt-Sarhanis says goodbye to friends and faculty at John Muir School's graduation, she wanted to complete a capstone project, a crowning achievement that would leave her mark on the Ashland campus.

On Wednesday, in front of a crowd of classmates sitting and standing in the courtyard garden, the 13-year-old pulled back a blue tarp and revealed a colorful mosaic depicting mountains, clouds, sun and sky now adorning a low wall.

Standing next to her was Monique Offord, 33, a Southern Oregon University senior and student teacher who graduates in June, too, with a bachelor's degree in elementary education.

Both students — separated in age by 20 years — elected to make a mural together as their capstone project. Neither had ever created a mosaic from tile, let alone one that would be so public, so permanent.

Nonetheless, they cranked up their favorite music — Taylor Swift, Miranda Lambert and other youthful country singers — and got to work cutting butcher paper the size of the wall, then mapping out the design. The K-8 school's mission of teaching about natural science and art inspired the motif.

"We are an outdoor school," said Ursula, "so we wanted something that was outdoorsy and simple, but not just blue sky."

A ribbon of brown rolling across the bottom of the mosaic represents neighboring hills and Mount McLoughlin, one of many hikes John Muir students took this school year to learn from nature.

Piece by piece, the duo assembled small tiles onto 2-foot-square sheets of sticky paper that were used to transfer the design, section by section, onto the wall. Then, they grouted between the tiles, polished the mural, covered it and hoped no one would peek at the artwork under a blossoming dogwood tree.

They worked six hours after school for eight weeks to complete their capstone project.

At John Muir, eighth-graders are asked to "stretch their boundaries," says teacher Marcia Ososke, and either leave their artistic mark somewhere on campus or intern with a company to gain the skills of timeliness, professionalism, reliability and responsibility, among others.

In the past, students have built furniture and created paintings on campus, erected structures at the outdoor education base camp or volunteered for organizations that help disabled children ride horses or for the Jackson County Fuel Committee.

After the unveiling, Ososke thanked the two graduates-to-be for "giving the school their time, skills and love." Everyone applauded and then the youngest classmates walked up to the wall to touch it.

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or by email at

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