Celebrating young lives on canvas

Chase Miller, 11 and Logan Gwin, 12, stood in the main hallway of Lisbon Elementary School, looking up at artwork on the walls.

"Bedazzling" was how Chase described it.


"I've never seen a picture like this before," Logan said.

Artwork in elementary school hallways is not unusual, but the pictures the two fifth-graders from Woodbine were looking at on a recent weekday were anything but usual.


The students were looking at painted portraits of themselves.

Chase and Logan are two of the 90 fifth-graders getting ready to graduate from Lisbon Elementary whose portraits, in what has become a tradition at the school, were painted by art teacher Shawn Costello.

Costello has been painting her students since she started teaching at Lisbon Elementary four years ago.

Since 2007, she has painted 300 to 400 oil portraits, which take 3-4 hours each. She calls them "oil sketches" — a sketch, then underpainting (a base coat of paint), to keep the style loose, she said.

One year she did charcoal sketches, but returned to painting 11x14 canvases. Now, she uses 16x20 panels, painting from photographs of the students taken at the beginning of the year.

Next year, she said, she's going to try to paint her students in the classroom, as they work.

Students are shy but excited when they see their portraits for the first time, Costello said. For her, the paintings are a way to bring the community together, and to acknowledge each child.

She also sees the portraits as a way of improving as a painter.

"There's this notion that if you do anything for 10,000 hours, you become an expert," she said. "I'm slowly but surely getting there."

Prompted by tragedy

Another reason for the portraits is more somber.

In the fall of 2007, the school community was devastated when two students and one former student, all siblings, died in a family tragedy.

"All of the kids were so sad," Costello said.

In response, Costello painted the deceased children, one of them a fifth-grader.

"I did those portraits, and then I did everybody," she said. "I wanted a way to celebrate their lives."

A graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art and Towson University, Costello, who lives in a reconfigured barn in West Friendship, has been teaching in Howard County for 23 years, she said, with the exception of a few years starting in 2001, when she taught art at an Indian reservation in Maine.

At Lisbon, her paintings have become an integral part of the school's culture.

"The parents at the bus stop are always talking about the portraits," said Laurie Carson, of Woodbine. "They really look forward to them, and they're amazed by how unbelievably magnificent they are."

Carson has not yet had a child be painted by Costello, but that will change next year, when her daughter, Amanda, graduates from Lisbon.

"It's something that every parent here looks forward to," Carson said. "I'm so excited to go from being a fourth-grade parent to a fifth-grade parent."

Lisbon Elementary Principal Jayne Diggs, said the portraits are "a wonderful opportunity for families to capture a specific, celebratory moment in their childrens' lives, and they are prized possessions.

"Ms. Costello brings her own fabulous artistic ability within the profession as an educator," Diggs said. "She's a mentor in her ability to model the artistic endeavors many children aspire to. She's unique in that there's no one, in my experience, across the school system who has set out to do anything like this initiative.

"She's very much a one-of-a-kind educator."

After an art show at the end of the year at Lisbon, parents can take home the portrait of their child if they make a donation to the school's art department.Costello said she's never had a parent refuse a painting.

"Everybody takes photographs, or scrapbooks, stuff like that," she said. "But to have an actual oil portrait is kind of a rare thing for families to have. It's something unique, that they may never get again, or ever have.

"How many people have an oil portrait of their child? Not many."

Sherri Ordwhite, a volunteer in Costello's classroom and parent to first-grader Sara and sixth-grader Taylor, said she's not much of a photo or painting person when it comes to decorating her home in Woodbine. But she's looking forward to the day she can hang Sara's portrait next to Taylor's. Taylor, who was painted by Costello last year, is now a student at Glenwood Middle School.

Seeing Taylor's portrait for the first time was "tear-jerking," Ordwhite recalled.

"For her take a picture of Taylor, that was gorgeous to begin with, and then to actually take her time and capture and my daughter on canvas, that was gorgeous," Ordwhite said. "I cried like a sap at the end of the year. It's a big change, going to middle school, and that was a nice way to send them off. It was a nice way to celebrate that time in her life."

Painting from photographs

Costello begins the paintings in September or October, after taking photographs of each of the students.

"The funny thing is, by the time it's June, the student could look like a teenager, and the painting is of a little child," Costello said. "There's a big growth spurt in the fifth grade, but I have to still just capture that moment of when I took the picture."

Sometimes the change is as subtle as a hairstyle. Standing in front of her portrait, Sophie Kraus, 11, of Woodbine, runs her hands through the hair, several inches longer than the Sophie in the painting.

"It's amazing," Sophie said. "It also looks really hard to do."

Sophie also said she enjoyed Costello's class, especially the way it was taught.

"She tells us a specific thing to draw, but then we can draw it however we want," she said.

On Monday, June 6, those "things" were sheep: A parent of one of Costello's students brought in sheep for the students to draw. Under a canopy in the grass behind Costello's classroom, students sat on foldout chairs, drawing the farm animals with crayon on paper.

In Costello's classroom, inspirational quotes from Miles Davis, Walt Disney and Pablo Picasso fill a side chalkboard and a plastic Tyrannosaurus Rex head is mounted on the wall, wearing a sombrero.

On a low shelf under a photograph of Jim Henson sit rows of puppets, another fifth-grade project. Fifth-grade parents get to take home the portrait; fifth-grade students get to take home their puppets.

Outside of the classroom, closer to the school's main entrance, finished portraits of the fifth-graders line the hallway. Sometimes, Costello said, she catches the students going out into the hallway just to get an extra look at them.

For the students, the portraits are more than mementos their parents can hang on their walls. They're a connecting force between them and their art teacher.

"(The portrait) captures your attention, because it's you, it looks like your photo," said Victoria Winter, 11, of Mt. Airy. "But it's a piece of Ms. Costello that makes it different, that you have with you."