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Madison Metropolitan School District

Huegel Elementary Ceiling Art Project Connects School Community

Walking through the hallways of Huegel Elementary School is like strolling through an art museum–all you have to do is look up. The ceiling is a colorful compilation of decorated 2-foot by 2-foot ceiling tiles, each one painted by a third grade student, a community art project that has continued for almost 15 years.

Art Teacher Kate Olsen Birner, who has worked with MMSD for 33 years, started the project shortly after joining Huegel. A few ceiling tiles in the art room were already painted by the previous teacher, leading Olsen Birner to paint her own tiles in the style of famous artists during art appreciation lessons. Before long, the project grew into a schoolwide endeavor, with each student getting to leave their artistic fingerprint in the school.

“I love childrens’ artwork! I love their courage, creativity and fearlessness. I love the way my students think of something that never occurred to me,” Olsen Birner said. “I think I learn far more from them than they do from me.”

Students can create their own design while drafting their tile, or use inspiration from a class lesson. The hundreds of painted tiles feature a wide variety of themes: Dogs, flags, marshmallows, rocket ships, video games, the Statue of Liberty, and many more. Teachers have joined the project too, painting their own tiles to hang alongside students. 

When schools closed due to the pandemic in 2020, third grade students were unable to participate in the project. This year, Olsen Birner said she’s determined to give the now-fifth graders the opportunity to leave their mark before graduating to middle school. The permanent art installation is representative of the entire school community, as each artists’ piece creates a rich mural when brought together, Olsen Birner said.

“Teaching arts in our schools is essential, as it fosters creativity, problem solving and growth. These are life skills that will be essential in any job situation or personal interaction,” Olsen Birner said. “The arts hold our stories, the arts tell our history, the arts teach us how to reach for the stars.”

painted ceiling tiles hung in the halls of an elementary school
school hallway with hand painted ceiling tiles made by students