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Posted Posted June 26, 2017
NOTE: In honor of the 50th anniversary of Plymouth Comprehensive High School this year, we’re sharing images of objects in and around the school. This article was written by Plymouth High School student Jacob Van Norwick as part of an independent study project.
By Jacob Van Norwick
When you step through the front doors of Plymouth High School, the first thing you’re greeted with is the 60-foot-wide set of murals stretching from one side of the room to the other across the top of the wall.
The paintings show the different areas taught at Plymouth High School as well as different people or events that made PHS what it is today. Each 12-by-4.5-foot panel represents a different aspect of the school. From left to right they are as follows: Vocational Education, The Arts, History, Science, and Sports – key areas for a comprehensive high school then and now.
“They pictorially tell the story of the comprehensive concept of our school exceedingly well,” then-Superintendent Elden Amundson told The Sheboygan Press at the time of the installation. “Students should find them interesting and inspiring for years and years.”
The murals were commissioned for the graduating Class of 1969, the first class to complete their schooling fully in the current PHS building after the transfer from what is now Riverview Middle School.
The artist, Luanne Harff-Burchinal, received the commission from the school board in late 1968 and began planning the murals in December of the same year. She spent five and a half months meticulously planning the panels, then another five and a half months transferring the images to linen canvases, using oil paints.
She was very concerned about the accuracy of the murals, moving an ignition valve on the motor in the vocational panel an eighth of an inch when a student pointed out its wrong position. She also wanted the murals to be as timeless as possible; for example, she avoided showing skirt hemlines, which go up and down with fashion fads.
The first panel on the left is about vocational studies and technical skills, something that the school superintendent at the time, and the artist, saw as greatly important. The mural displays images of farming, electronic engineering, industrial training, and business machines. The mural shows the importance of the American workforce and anybody who plans on following a career in the vocational studies.
The second panel displays the importance of the arts in the past and present at PHS. Included on the panel are images of Shakespeare, Mark Twain, and the poet Carl Sandburg. Mrs. Burchinal also included her brother, James Harff, who was an avid sculptor. Filling in the spaces on the panel are snippets of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling and Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” Next to all of the composers, writers, poets, artists, and artwork, are images of arts programs at PHS.
The third panel is for history. This central panel features a large image of Abraham Lincoln seated in the Lincoln Memorial, with all the other images arrayed around it. The smaller images depict important moments or facets of history that helped lead us to this very moment. Shown are images of pioneers moving west, Leif Erikson landing in the New World, and soldiers raising the flag on Iwo Jima. At the bottom of the panel is a quote from the Plymouth Rock Monument: “They laid the foundation of a state wherein every man through countless ages should have liberty.” It is a powerful statement that honors those who gave us the freedoms and liberties we have today.
The fourth panel is dedicated to the sciences. Each different science has a place on the mural. Biology is represented by different wildlife, while chemistry is depicted by a student mixing substances. In the center of the panel is astronomy, which is represented by Galileo looking at the starts, and the rocket Apollo 10. Finally, there’s meteorology and physics, with wind monitors spinning in the wind and Albert Einstein looking out quizzically over the onlookers. If you look closely, you’re able to see an experiment of celery in different colored water on the left side of the panel. This was added by the artist from her own experience in elementary school science.
The fifth and final panel is all about school sports. You can see football players, basketball players, and cross country runners, all in PHS colors participating in their chosen activities. There are images of the Plymouth Pantherettes, which eventually became the PHS Dance Team. One sport not included on the mural is wrestling. This is because PHS didn’t have a wrestling team at the time the murals were designed.
The panels were applied to the wall much like a vinyl wall covering, and Ms. Burchinal expected them to last “60 to 600” years. Unfortunately, the corners are starting to detach from the wall, so the PHS Student Council will be evaluating a project to preserve the murals.