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'Creativity is everything' | Elementary school's halls lined in spray paint art

Dogwood Elementary in Knox County is focused on creating a positive learning environment for students. The art on the walls isn't typical, but it's impactful.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Dogwood Elementary may look like an average school from the outside, but the minute you step inside, you're greeted with creativity in every crevice.

Almost every hallway is lined in "graffiti art" as Principal Lana Shelton-Lowe describes it.

“We kind of are the school like none other," Shelton-Lowe said. "So, we wanted something where our school would look unique."

Murals, paintings and artwork of all shapes, sizes and themes live on the walls at the elementary school in South Knoxville. It's almost like walking through a museum, with something new to see everywhere you turn.

It all started in 2017 when the school hired muralist Steve Hall to get the job done. Shelton-Lowe was very clear that she wanted all the art to be done in spray paint.

“It was actually a friend of a friend that approached me," Hall said. “It's been an adventure.”

In 2019, he brought on artist Aaron Carroll to help him. The pair mainly paint in the hallways on school breaks, like in the summer. Spray painting the hallways at a school isn't something he ever expected to do in his art career.

“It was a little mind-blowing at first, but we're pretty used to it now," Carroll said. "I never ever thought I'd make a living doing it. That's for sure.”

The murals consist of everything from underwater and beach scenes to comic book characters, inspirational phrases, iconic public figures and bright colors.

“It's a really good feeling," Carroll said. "Anytime that I have interacted with the children, they're just excited about it. It's a very good feeling and satisfying."

Everyone involved with the project hopes the art inspires creativity beyond the classroom.

"Seeing art as a child inspired me to start creating my own art," Carroll said. "Hopefully, I inspire an upcoming generation of artists.”

The positive and unique school experience doesn't stop there either. There's a disco ball and speakers in the cafeteria, and having fun is encouraged. 

Shelton-Lowe has already noticed a difference in student behavior.

"Our office referrals are down significantly and kids want to come to school," Shelton-Lowe said. "We want them to come here and we want them to excel academically, but we also want them to enjoy their time here.”

Dogwood Elementary is a community school, meaning the surrounding area helps out with teaching, field trips and school support. The pair of professional artists are now part of that family.

"Aaron and Steve have really become not just artists, they've become supporters of our school and become our friends, so we've really liked having them as a part of our family," Shelton-Lowe said.

Students will be greeted with a few new finished murals in the third-grade hallway after they come back from summer break. The school teases the pieces of art on social media, but kids won't see the full pictures until they are back in class for the year.

"Probably the best part of all of it is getting to see their face when they see it because they light up," Shelton-Lowe said.

Overall, the artists have used hundreds of cans of spray paint, and they aren't planning on stopping any time soon.

"We'll keep coming as long as there's free space," Carroll said. "Then we'll cover it all up again, and do it all over again. It's a never-ending canvas, which is pretty awesome.”

The artists take input from the teachers and students about what they want to see in the next mural, and the art is always evolving.

School starts in Knox County on August 8.

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