Skyla Wilson took one look at the walls of Rich Valley Elementary School and decided they needed a bit of color.
The too-institutional look of the elementary school triggered the artist in her that has since transformed bland surfaces into whimsical images.
It began with her painting blocks of color along the walls to brighten the pathway students traveled each day.
“Then I thought, wouldn’t it be nice to have the (county school) logo on the wall?” Wilson said. Principal Tammy Hahn approved it being painted on the main office wall.
Wilson said she projected the image onto the wall to draw the outlines then filled it in with color. She said Hahn stopped by while she was painting it and said, “I didn’t realize it would be that big!” Measuring several feet across in width and length, the logo fills a good majority of one wall, and everyone seems impressed with the size as well as the quality.
“I couldn’t imagine it any smaller,” Hahn said.
Then Hahn asked Wilson if she could update the art in the school cafeteria. There was a big pig head painted around the site where students returned their trays. Hahn wanted something different and Wilson came up with the idea of creating the look of an outdoor café and theatre in the dining area.
Wilson researched ideas on the internet and found several images she could project onto the walls to create the murals. One was a Parisian-looking café around the tray return area, then a streetlight image underneath a wall clock, theatre curtains painted around the flat screen TV, and windows with trailing vines, a cat (representing the school’s Little Panther mascot), and flowers. There are little hidden surprises in the window paintings.
The reason Wilson uses a projector to create the outlines of her murals is because they are so large it’s difficult to achieve the dimensions close up. She uses a ladder to do much of the painting.
Her next project was a huge mural of a tree with children playing outside.
“It is a former big tree with red mushrooms growing underneath it,” Wilson said. “I wanted something to represent our area and the kids who are outside playing.”
There are two girls at a swing, a boy playing with a toy dinosaur, and a cat (again the Little Panther) chasing a butterfly. The images are dark silhouettes set against the blue of the mountains in the background. Green leaves are attached to the tree each month bearing the names of students with a birthday that month.
A special touch is a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.”
These are just a few of the murals Wilson has painted around the school. They also include colorful books above the entrance to the library, a directional sign at an intersection of hallways, and an inspirational message on an old wall heater. She has also painted props for the high school band and created paintings for fundraisers.
“Painting is probably my favorite thing to do,” said Wilson, who no doubt inherited the talent from her mother whom she used to watch as she taught art classes. One of her half-sisters is a professional artist.
“I’ve been painting all my life,” she said. “My mama taught us all. She paints. My sister paints. We all get together and paint.”
Wilson is originally from Alabama, where much of her family still lives. One sister lives in Colorado and when visiting her Skyla met her future husband, Joe, on a blind date. He and her sister’s husband served together in the Air Force. They married and traveled all over the world with Joe working in telecommunications, living in Florida and then Northern Virginia. When Joe’s job changed, they decided to downsize and move to his native Smyth County. He was from Saltville, and they moved into his grandmother’s house while building a home in Tannersville.
Wilson said she did odd jobs around the community and opened a little store in Saltville. She and Joe had raised two children and were now helping raise a granddaughter. Wilson wanted a job that would allow her to be with her granddaughter as much as possible. She found the job listing for custodian at Rich Valley Elementary and thought it would be perfect.
“I was a stay-at-home mom forever,” she said. “When Tammy interviewed me for a job and asked how I was qualified, I said I’ve been married to the same man for over 30 years, raised two kids, and I’m helping raise a granddaughter for now. I’ve been training for this my whole life.”
That was seven years ago, and Wilson has been head custodian for the past five years. And she loves her job.
“I do like it,” she said. “I love my school. And the kids are great. This age group, the kids are just fun. I love them all. And the whimsy fits right in.”
Wilson likes to paint early in the mornings when the school is quiet for a couple of hours.
“The kids love it,” she said. “I’m on the ladder with a paintbrush and they say, ‘What are you doing?’ They stop and watch.”
Wilson likes acrylic paint the best as it dries quickly. And she loves painting imaginative subjects. She plans to paint the school’s sensory hallway this summer and has ideas for a colorful mural of kids in motion for the gymnasium. She’d also like to paint murals in the restrooms.
Wilson said she learned to paint on glass in a workshop at the Henderson and has created some beautiful floral jars.
“I’m always doing something creative. I just love to paint,” she said. “Nobody’s told me I couldn’t do something, so I try and it might turn out great or it might not. It’s a lot of trial and error.”