CHAMPAIGN — The whir of drills and the clacking of countless plastic bottle caps filled the air of the gym at South Side Elementary on Friday.
The school's students took turns sorting through different styles and shades of bottle caps as they worked to make a mural featuring some fifth-grade students' drawing of the school's mascot, the South Side Superstar.
The students transformed three flat, painted plywood panels — each 4 feet wide by 5 feet tall — into art full of texture and different, vibrant shades of color, simply by arranging and rearranging bottle caps, then screwing them onto the panels.
The students were working under the tutelage of Michelle Stitzlein, who is in town to be artist-in-residence for The I.D.E.A. Store's Hatch creative reuse festival, which is going on this weekend.
The mural will hang from the outside of the school's portable classroom trailer and will face the parking lot the school shares with the school district's Mellon Administrative Center.
Stitzlein gave a presentation to the whole school about making art with found objects and included photos of some of her own artwork.
"If you think about it, where would all these plastic caps be if you hadn't have saved them?" she asked the South Side students.
She also worked closely with each group of students that chose and arranged bottle caps on three plywood panels that will be hung next to each other to become a mural.
She gave them specific instructions, depending on their ages, about how to arrange the bottle caps inside colors art teacher Amy Lozar painted on the plywood panels. Stitzlein explained to older students how to safely use cordless drills and blunt screws to attach one or more bottle caps to the mural at a time.
She taught younger students how to work with adult volunteers to press the drill's trigger while the volunteer pressed down and guided the drill.
She reminded students to work in small areas on the mural. Kindergartners were the first to work on the mural, and while they covered plenty of space with the caps, volunteers didn't have much time to actually screw them to the panels.
Their unsecured bottle caps were removed so the other students could put their own spin on the mural.
Stitzlein reminded them while they should follow the same basic color guide painted on the panels, they could stack bottle caps to incorporate other colors, too. One streak of purple featured both pink and purple bottle caps.
Lozar said she expected the students to use 70 to 80 bottle caps per square foot on the mural. She'd been storing clean bottle caps by color in garbage cans and boxes. The students picked through them, transporting them to their work spaces in clear plastic tubs.
Lozar said the school was able to create the murals using all recycled materials, including donated marine-grade plywood and paint. Students started saving bottle caps last spring, when Lozar started researching a way to make the portable classrooms look more attractive.
She wanted to incorporate recycling and found Stitzlein's work with bottle caps on the social media site Pinterest.
She contacted The I.D.E.A. Store, which the Champaign Urbana Schools Foundation runs, which sells materials for creative reuse.
It just so happened that the store wanted to bring Stitzlein, who lives in Baltimore, Ohio, to town for Hatch, and Stitzlein wanted to work with a school while she was here.
Stitzlein said she likes teaching students to work with bottle caps, especially because it gives them a chance to "see what was specifically their trash ... become this beautiful mural."
And Lozar said she likes to teach her students to work with repurposed materials, and Stitzlein's visit was a way to do that.
"The kids are learning (to repurpose) these materials that would have otherwise been in the garbage, and making something beautiful out of them," Lozar said.
Fifth-grader Naomi DuPree said she liked making the mural because she got to work with her friends, but was helping to make a lasting piece of artwork for the school.
"I learned you have to make sure you're responsible with others," when it came to handing off the cordless drill, taking turns and cooperating with her classmates.
"I just think it's important that we're doing this," DuPree said.
Fifth-grader Damuzha Moore said he had fun working on the mural, and learned some things about art, too.
"You can use anything to make it," he said.
If you're interested in learning how to work with bottle caps, it's possible there will be openings for walk-ins at a workshop Michelle Stitzlein is hosting today for adults.
It's at The I.D.E.A. Store, 28 E. Springfield Ave., C. It's a workshop on making a mini bottle-cap mural.
The workshop is scheduled from 10:30 a.m. until 4 p.m., and the cost is $30. Those interested in taking the class should come prepared with these suggested items: old aprons or paint shirts, old gardening gloves, old pillows or blankets, goggles, hair ties if you have long hair, battery-powered drills with batteries and chargers, and pre-cleaned bottle caps, if you have any.