Massachusetts-based artist James Chisholm has been with Agora Gallery since the beginning of 2013. We’ve had the pleasure of not only exhibiting and promoting his own beautiful paintings but also watching as he uses his passion to transform the lives of the young artists around him. James teaches numerous classes to artists of all ages (we spoke with him regarding his experiences teaching students that art can actually turn into a career for the 34th volume of ARTisSpectrum Magazine) and is always working on new projects that allow his students to experiment with their own styles of expression. However, one of James’ most successful projects has been an annual mural that is completed by the entire group of students from his drawing class at the North Shore Community College. Each year introduces a new inspiration, and stories about his mural projects have been written up locally).

James Chisholm and students from his NSCC drawing class working on the mural

James Chisholm and students from his NSCC drawing class working on the mural; source: Owen O’Rourke from

We spoke with James to get a more intimate look into the journey from conception to creation to finished mural!

The task? Developing a mural painting based on the ballet by Aaron Copland, “The Appalachian Spring Ballet.” The process of creating the mural is broken down into individual steps in order to accentuate the development of the students’ drawing skills.

1. The preliminary research

In order for the students to successfully create their own interpretations of the ballet, the class listens to examples of the musical score of the ballet, watches the first act on DVD, and visualizes the characters and plot actions. Each student begins to develop portraits and figure studies of some of the main characters in the ballet, which they then block into a rough study of the overall mural. These characters are fleshed out and refined throughout the remainder of the semester.

The preliminary drawing done by one of James Chisholm's former students

The preliminary drawing by one of James Chisholm’s former students

As a preliminary, the first drawing project at the beginning of the semester was to develop a three-part pencil drawing. First, the students start with a still life drawn from observation and finish with imagination textures. Then they make a drawing interpretation based on a work by a 20th-21st-century artist, such as O’Keefe, Braque, Picasso, etc. Finally, they create a transitional piece inserted between the first and second study in order to establish a visual synthesis.

The point of this first project is to analyze and compare historical and contemporary painters and find common design threads while creating something original.

2. More specific developments

The next step is to prepare our canvas – a large swatch of Strathmore drawing paper roughly 12-14′ long, 40″ tall, and over 60 lbs in weight. We fasten the paper with masking tape to our studio tables and immediately start watching the ballet on Youtube before taking to our pencils and paper. The start of the mural revolves around establishing the overall appearance of the setting and then inserting the characters by appearance. Mimicking the techniques of the classical artists from the 15th and 16th centuries, we start the mural from the middle of the drawing sheet, going from the inside to the outside of the design.

James Chisholm's class starting their mural

James Chisholm’s class starting their mural

There are about 12 to 14 students active at various times, but only 6 or 7 can be working on the paper together; students shift over time so that each member of the class has a strong hand in the continuity of the piece. By the time the first session runs its course, we sketch out the basic design of what would be complete in subsequent meetings, and we start a bit of preliminary color work!

The mural in progress after session one

The mural in progress after session one

3. Continuity

During the following weeks, we really delve into the development of the painting. At this point, the students “define their turf” and work in their own specific spots. Many of the students have little to no formal training artistically and using acrylic paint – a medium that uses water – on the thick paper is in itself experimental for them. To keep the color approaches simple, we make all of the tones from primary colors – red, yellow, and blue – and use black or white to lighten or darken.

The class continues to color the mural

The class continues to color the mural

4. Coming to an end

The final sessions together envelope the development and completion of the design. Key figures and themes are painted and the students start working either individually or as a team, adjusting the design when necessary and keeping an overall consistency of the work. The students are able to develop very strong design solutions and maintain a strong focus throughout the development of the mural.

“Nothing beats working in the darkened room that seems to exists for us before we have tried to do something that’s new and seems really hard, until we do try really hard and succeed.” – James Chisholm

The mural process is a complex one, often requiring multitasking – in this case, resolving musical and visual references and ending with something created by multiple artists that would still provide a consistent visual narrative. Many of my students have minimal training or experience with fine art painting, and yet they are able to learn by doing. Although we may run into some slight obstacles (such as my having to miss one of our key sessions due to a severe cold), the students rally together and create a beautiful mural. It is a real life experience that I am sure they will recall for many years, as will I.

The completed mural was installed in the Lynn NSCC campus library on May 4, 2016, and we couldn't be more proud!

The completed mural was installed in the Lynn NSCC campus library on May 4, 2016, and we couldn’t be more proud!

I’ve done many mural projects in the past few years, including in nursing homes, drug testing centers, as well as commissioned private murals. However, this may well have been the most significant project to date, even surpassing last year’s project. To quote Barnett Newman, a leading American painter of the mid-20th century, “Art critics are to artists, as ornithologists are to birds.” Nothing beats learning by doing, particularly when the instructors are actively involved in the process.

Chisholm is based in Salem, Massachusetts and regularly exhibits as well as teaches all around the Boston area. He is also an accomplished wood carver. Visit his ARTmine page to take a look at his works.