While painting a ceramic flounder purple, Alma Ramirez talks about the importance of creating a mural to show how trash negatively hurts the environment.
But there is another reason Ramirez came to help with the mural during her two-week fall break from Lodi Middle School.
“It’s the only one time where you can be messy and your mom doesn’t get mad at you,” she said.
About a dozen local middle schoolers returned to Heritage Elementary School to work on an art project that will memorialize the Heritage Cleanup Patrol, the club the students founded last year as sixth-graders.
Ramirez, now a Lodi Middle School seventh-grader, started the club after Kathy Grant, the city’s watershed education coordinator, talked to the kids about how trash on the streets flows into rivers through Lodi’s storm drains.
“I got tired of seeing garbage in the street,” Ramirez said.
For the art project Tuesday, Grant organized the students and worked with Donna Billick, a professor at University of California, Davis.
On Tuesday, Billick brought down supplies and helped the kids work on the mural with clay from the city of Lincoln and mosaic tiles that Billick got mostly through Dumpster diving.
The students created clay animals including turtles, crabs, lobsters, fish and even trash, like soda cans and wine bottles, that the students found while cleaning. Then they placed them on a board and started placing mosaic tile around them.
“The goal was to feature the beauty queens of the habitat,” Billick said.
Billick, who is a co-founder of the art and science fusion program at UC Davis, has organized community events where local residents create an art project that focuses on some type of issue, like protecting the watershed.
“It’s a strategy that really resonated with me as a lifelong artist. People want to take ownership, and let people make art and come together and establish a theme,” she said.
Using art expands and enhances the message about a healthy environment, Billick said. For example, a child can learn about a spider, but if they actually have to draw one, they have to study the bug’s shape and features.
“When you talk to someone, you are passing on an idea. But when you add art, the idea travels from the head to your hand, so it has to travel right through the heart,” Billick said. “It passes through all of our personal beliefs and points of view.”
For at least one parent, it also has another practical purpose. Angeles Ortiz said she has been pleased to see her son Felipe Ortiz and other children participate in learning about the city’s watershed, because it has given them plenty of opportunities to get involved and learn.
“We always volunteer, and I like working with kids at Heritage because they have to be focused on something so they don’t make bad choices outside,” Angeles Ortiz said.
Felipe Ortiz stared at a photo of a twinspot wrasse on a cellphone as he painted a clay fish. He has participated in the annual Coastal Cleanups at Lodi Lake and the cleanups around Heritage, and he is always surprised at the amount of trash they find. Kids said they found cigarettes, beer bottles, used diapers, condoms and pregnancy tests.
“If we clean up around the lake and our school, it’s going to help the environment and stop the trash from going in the ocean,” Felipe Ortiz said.
Targeting children through these types of programs is important because they are at an age where they want to learn about nature, Billick said.
“The environment is becoming important to young people because if we are to survive, we need to know about our surroundings. You have to turn off the TV or get off the cellphone. How can you fall in love with a tree if you’ve never met a tree?” she said.
Fifth-grade teacher Janine Jacinto, who started the Lodi Youth Running Club at Heritage, said the kids enjoy cleaning up the streets every Friday with Heritage Cleanup Patrol as much as running.
When the sixth-graders who started the club were talking during last school year, they decided they wanted to leave some type of a legacy to mark the formation of the Heritage Cleanup Patrol, Jacinto said.
The children said they were excited about the mural being up for future generations. One of the reasons the project uses clay and mosaic tiles is because those artworks tend to last regardless of the weather.
“These are immortal materials passed down through the ages. ... Creating artifacts is the way we teach future generations about who we are and what we cared about,” Billick said.
Right before handing off her completed purple flounder, Alma Ramirez said she hopes the mural will encourage people to recycle.
“I want to show other people how much trash is in the rivers,” she said.