Gwen Hoppe, an art teacher at Willard Alternative High School, scrambles to get her students prepared and ready to leave the classroom. Does anyone need something to drink from the school store? Put on your shoes! Do we have all our art supplies?

When they finally leave the building, the students chat among themselves while walking the three blocks to Nutritional Labs on Third Street West. It is a sunny day and the students get right to work, each one immersed in their piece of a new 7-foot-tall neighborhood mural.

The project began when the Riverfront Neighborhood Council was looking for ways to enhance the area and decided to create a mural on the Bitterroot Spur Trail. They were able to find a home for the artwork at Nutritional Labs, along with $1,000 in funding from the business and a $3,000 grant from the city of Missoula.

Next, the council wanted to combine the efforts of a local artist while providing a creative outlet for Willard School, which has participated in other community efforts, including another neighborhood mural and a ceramics show.

The eventual title of the project, “Flourishing,” came from the “regrowth” of trees and flowers after a wildfire, an idea prompted by last summer’s Lolo Creek fires – and inspired by a tour of the nearby Montana Natural History Center and a brainstorming session.

There are correlations, too, Hoppe said, between plants and people, who can also rise up after setbacks – and, in fact, “flourish.”

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Each student selected a plant that interested them, and then were taught to draw it – or its pollinator species – by Stephanie Frostad, a Missoula artist who known for her paintings of nature and human beings in their natural surroundings.

Frostad combined the students’ individual art pieces into the mural that has slowly taken shape this month on the side of Nutritional Laboratories. If all goes as planned, the project will be complete by Wednesday.

Frostad became involved through Hoppe, who is also on the neighborhood council. She quickly accepted the assignment and helped the students at every turn.

“Doing this is more like social work with a design element. It is not consistent with my ideas, but I am glad my talents are being put to good use.” Frostad said.

The students also found the experience rewarding.

Keana Ring-Rees, 15, a sophomore at the school who is often found without shoes, has worked on the mural from the start.

“I like arts and Gwen is one of my favorite teachers.” She said. “I picked two flowers: a spring beauty and another one that I can’t remember the name of, but the spring beauty is a gentle lavender color.”

There’s much left to do by Wednesday, and students will be painting daily until then – in morning and afternoon shifts.

“We still have to add another layer and graffiti sealer, so people don’t add their own art.” Hoppe said.

Hoppe’s involvement made the whole project possible.

And there is room left on the wall, so future Willard students can continue the project someday. Hoppe also wants to continue working with Frostad, but knows that the biggest issue is funding.

For now, the composition will stretch across 32 feet of the 100-foot wall and rise 9 feet.

Samantha Cheney is a journalism student at the University of Montana and a summer intern in the Missoulian newsroom.

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