It’s a tradition that goes back to the school’s first graduating class, in 2000: the five seniors that year made individual mosaic panels in art class that they eventually decided were too large to take home, so they gifted them to the school. Since at the time the high school didn’t have its own building, they now hang in the Steiner Lower School on Newport Rd.
Almost every year since, seniors have created a large mosaic to be permanently mounted at the high school’s Pontiac Tr. building. The artistic style and subject matter vary widely, from very realistic portraits of Martin Luther King Jr., Frida Kahlo, and Beethoven to one inspired by an abstract Kandinsky painting; from a periodic table of elements, now hung in the chemistry lab, to panels designed around a Fibonacci spiral.
At eight feet by eight feet, this year’s scene—a path winding past water and woods to a sunlit valley—doesn’t even make the top three in size. The largest is twelve feet by thirty.
Art has always been part of the school’s curriculum, which is based on the work of Austrian thinker Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925). But Ann Arbor’s is the only one of 1,200 “Waldorf” schools worldwide with the mosaic tradition. It was initiated by art teacher Elena Efimova, who continues to oversee it with Riccardo Capraro and Nataliya Pryzant.
“The beauty of the students’ work creates an absolutely different mood” in the school, Efimova says. “People even move through the hallways differently. They constantly stay by the walls when they see that there’s a new art project displayed.”
Since 2001 (with the exception of pandemic-disrupted 2020 and 2021) every senior class has spent a week in Italy, visiting Venice, Florence, and Rome, witnessing firsthand the art, architecture, mathematics, physics, and literature that they have been studying. “The trip, and then this studio mosaic project, brings together many, many different threads” from their education, says humanities teacher Margot Amrine. The students begin working on the class mosaic in April, often incorporating some glass they have brought back from Italy.
The entire process, from start to finish, is highly collaborative. Usually, Efimova selects the location and suggests the theme, keeping in mind the practical constraints of the project as well as her extensive knowledge of the class, having worked with them throughout high school and often even in their lower-school years. Sometimes, as with the Kandinsky, she proposes the image, but the rest of the faculty and the seniors either respond enthusiastically or another suggestion is debated and modified. Occasionally, as with the Fibonacci spiral or the large map of the world for the history room, it’s a student who comes up with the final idea. “It’s a great hidden lesson for students, working together as a group,” says Capraro. “You have to try to get everybody on board about a design, you’ve got a deadline—it’s very realistic, very real world.”
“It really is a beautiful example of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts,” says Amrine. “Because it’s all little tiny pieces that can be beautiful in their own way, but they don’t mean anything and they don’t create an image until they all are assembled together.”
While there’s always a general plan, she says, there’s also “an opportunity for spontaneity” as students work together and compare ideas. “Kind of like jazz—reflect your little portion from being inspired by somebody else’s, and looking and observing … it really goes its own way, collaboratively, in real time, which has a little bit of a musical element to it.”
This year, at first there was no clear consensus about the design. But many good ideas were proposed, so eventually, Efimova asked Capraro to synthesize and refine the various images that the students had proposed. He brought back “a glorious, glorious sketch, and students loved it,” she says.
The pandemic created a special challenge. The Italy trip was canceled in 2020 and the school closed for in-person learning in the spring. But “one of the students, as his personal project, had made a mosaic copy of the class photograph that was taken at the beginning of the school year,” Efimova says. “I asked the student to donate this, he agreed, and it became the centerpiece of their class gift. We made the border with the initials of each student. Each student received a small square, and they came in the summer, two at a time, and made their own initials.”
The class of 2018’s mosaic is a freeform, beautifully balanced work, mostly in warm, welcoming shades of blue, that frames the entrance to the school’s new addition. Last December, it served as the backdrop for an outdoor choir concert.
“It was the first choir concert we had had since Covid,” Amrine recalls. “The parents were there, and other children, and alumni came, and the students sang with that mosaic as their backdrop. Elena said: ‘It’s almost as if it was made for this moment.’”