The dancer in the dirndl was missing something, artist Sylvia Benitez fretted. But what was it, she asked a group of fourth-graders at Jacobsville Elementary School.

"No, no," she answered as they guessed.

"Eyeballs!" she finally shouted. "She can't see where she's going."

Quickly, Benitez, the school's artist in residence, set one of the youngsters to work with brown paint and a fingertip as the class put finishing touches on a huge mural to which nearly every student in the school has contributed.

The mural, painted on four panels ofSheetrock, is to be hung today on a wall in the school cafeteria. But it won't be unveiled until next Friday, said Lori Kessler, the school art teacher.

"We wanted to do it up with a real unveiling," sheexplained.

It was Kessler who dreamed up the artist in residence proposal.

She knew that the Maryland Arts Council sponsored such aprogram, and she wanted her students to do "a permanent piece of artwork," she said. "And I wanted them to experience a different level of work from the instruction I do."

The school PTA came up with $900 for the program. Principal Wayne Miller applied to the arts council for the remaining $1,800.

This is the second time he has used anarts council grant for a school program, he said. Last year, Slim Harrison, a folk musician from Western Maryland, spent a week at the school teaching youngsters about homemade instruments and folk dancing.

"Whatever we do, I want to be sure that we involve all the students in the school," Miller said. "Not just the gifted and talented kids or some special group."

They found Benitez, who lives in Ellicott City but keeps a studio in New York, through the arts council's registry.

For three weeks, she has been coaxing the students through the painting. The younger ones helped prepare the surfaces and painted large blocks of color as the background for the pictures. And she has coached the others on new techniques.

"What you need to do in here is dry brush," she explained to Jermal Watts, a fifth-grader who was painting highlights on the apron of one dancer's skirt. "Like this," she continued, lightly moving the brush across the surface. "You try it."

"He's a natural," she whispered as she stood back and watched Jermal. "OK, that's beautiful," she cheered.

Jermal and his classmates started with flags and pictures from the countries of theirancestors, then gradually shaped the ideas into their mural.

It starts on one end with a huge head of Buddha, then works through a manin a rice paddy, a woman in a kimono, bagpipers in kilts, a man in traditional northern Scandinavian dress, Bavarian dancers, American Indians hunting, Central Americans in canoes and an African man playinga flute.

Yesterday, the fourth-graders swarmed over the painting,adding eyes here, shading a shoe there.

Erinn Sawyer shaded an eye on one dancer; Carlos Morales helped with one of the others. Sarah Johnson touched up some shading.

"Can I do something?" begged Damont Keemer.

"We're running out of somethings to do," Benitez replied.

Later, she handed Damont a roller to help paint the plaid on a piper's kilt.

"You gotta have the plaid there," he insisted when someone wondered whether the kilts should have been left plain. "All those guys with bagpipes have plaid in their pants."

Painting the mural has been fun, the students agreed. They learned how to draw withpaints, they learned about shading and shapes and blends and about working in large groups. And they got out of regular classes just a bit.

"Yessss," hissed Wayne Mackenzie as he shot both thumbs skyward.

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