More than window dressing: Students paint downtown in holiday spirit

Published 5:56 pm Friday, December 10, 2021

Downtown storefronts look a bit livelier now, and you have more than 100 budding artists from Suffolk Public Schools to thank.

Over the course of two days ahead of the downtown holiday parade, high school, middle school and elementary school students created a Home for the Holidays feel in the windows, and even as they were still putting the finishing touches on their creations, passers-by honked and complimented their work.

But more than just reviving downtown’s holiday spirit, it seemed to do the same for the students and teachers who took part, as they weren’t able to do it last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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“After the pandemic and virtual learning, I am so happy that the city decided to do this again because they need that in their lives,” said Elephant’s Fork Elementary art teacher Meredith Kerr, recently selected the school’s teacher of the year. “They need that happiness and those experiences that they haven’t had.”

Kerr’s group — two fourth-graders and five fifth-graders — wore shirts she made for them as they painted the windows in front of the Wells Fargo Bank on North Main Street Dec. 9. They said “Elephant’s Fork Talented Art,” and had the first name of each student.

She and the students discussed the images they wanted to use based on the theme, and since none of them had ever done anything like it before, Kerr showed them how to layer the paint using a piece of glass in the classroom.

They used washable tempera paint in various colors and sponges and sponge brushes to put their signature touches on their holiday decorations. By the time they left the bank, the employees inside cheered and applauded their efforts and admired their newly decorated windows.

Just up the street at The Mod Olive, students from Oakland Elementary were excited to decorate the restaurant’s windows as it prepared to open for the day.

Fifth-grader Jaclynn Rooney likes the vibe the holiday window art gives to downtown.

“It makes it glow,” Jaclynn said. “When people are having a bad day, they can just come by and they’ll see it.”

Oakland art teacher Cynthia Quesenberry, who had 12 fifth-grade students with her, said she and the students look forward to painting downtown for the holidays.

“It’s just a lot of fun,” Quesenberry said. “It’s great exposure for the kids to come out and actually be inside of a restaurant doing something other than eating, and they get to really see and do something almost on a professional level because a lot of people have this done to their windows. And we do our best to do a really nice job.”

In all, more than 118 students took part in the downtown tradition that dates 20 years, kicking off with Kilby Shores Elementary students. This year included the most participating students and businesses in the event’s history.

Besides Wells Fargo and The Mod Olive, they included Haven & Hull, the Suffolk Peanut Center (Planters Store), Bank of America, Embroidery, Etc., Nutrition Ignition, Chop Shop, Wall Street Café, Mad Batter Bakery, High Tide Restaurant, Brandon House Furniture and the Cross Realty-owned building on the corner of West Washington and Saratoga streets.

Two days prior to the elementary students painting the town, students from Forest Glen, John F. Kennedy and John Yeates middle schools, along with a cadre from King’s Fork, Lakeland and Nansemond River high schools, put their own holiday spin on the windows of downtown businesses.

The older students were able to have lunch Thursday at several downtown restaurants, as coordinated by SPS, and elementary students were treated to a luncheon at City Hall.

Quesenberry said this type of event provides students with greater visibility for their art while boosting the spirits of downtown workers and shoppers.

“This really opens up the city to the kids to show this is what the school system does for us,” Quesenberry said, “the nice things that they can have.”

Kerr said this kind of event, given what has happened with the pandemic over the past 20 months, has been a morale boost for them.

“These kids need a lot of love,” Kerr said. “They’ve been quarantined and virtual learning for so long that they need a lot of happiness.”

And by the reactions of the passers-by and the employees and patrons of the businesses, they’re also giving it in return.