WINAMAC — “You are beautiful.”
It’s three simple words that carry a powerful message. And it’s a message that will forever be written on the walls of Eastern Pulaski Elementary School in Winamac.
The fifteen 5-foot tall letters cover an entire wall of the cafeteria, with each letter bursting with colors and smiling faces. In fact, there are more than 550 faces featured in the “crowd mural,” as artist Holly Combs, of Indianapolis, calls it.
It’s a project she and her husband, Dave Combs, have spent countless hours working on through Arts for Learning, the Indiana affiliate of Young Audiences based out of Indianapolis.
A professional teaching artist for the organization, Holly Combs spent a week with the students at the school in early January to talk about creating art and the art of being a better person.
“I taught the whole school about being kind,” she said.
The students — as well as the teachers — then had just over a month to complete their self-portraits. The portraits were then shipped to the Combs, who spent three days scanning the images. Dave Combs compiled the scans into the letters of the mural and then the whole thing was shipped off to be printed on PVC.
Paid for through a Pulaski County Community Foundation grant and PTA funding, the project came to fruition on Monday, the last day of school before summer break. Crews began hanging the mural at 7:30 a.m. and didn’t wrap up until minutes before the planned 2:45 p.m. unveiling.
Students filed into the cafeteria in the final moments of the school year for the big unveiling. Most who entered instantly began scanning the massive letters in hopes of finding their self-portrait, with small fingers putting high to show their friends when they finally found it.
On hand to watch was Matthew Hoffman, the man behind the You Are Beautiful movement.
After graduating from Ball State University, Hoffman moved to Chicago.
“At first, the city was overwhelming,” he said. “But eventually I wanted to add my positive voice to the conversation.”
And thus “You Are Beautiful” was born.
It started in 2002 with a hundred stickers bearing Hoffman’s message: “You Are Beautiful.” A decade later, more than a half million stickers have been spread around the world and the message has found its way into murals and other public art installations.
And that same message was heard loud and clear at Eastern Pulaski Monday, as all 550-plus students and teachers shouted the words “you are beautiful” together during the unveiling ceremony as they gathered under the massive mural.
”There’s power when a group of people own a message,” Holly Combs told the crowd.
Each self-portrait contained a word the artist chose to describe themselves. The words ranged from colorful and hopeful to clever and loyal. One young artist took the liberty of using three words: “I am awesome.”
Choosing the words is part of the message: “It’s not about what you look like,” Holly Combs said. “It’s about what’s on the inside.”
Finding that inner beauty is a big part of the message.
“The fact the kids are getting this message at such an early age is great,” Hoffman said. “It might be sinking in right now or it might hit them later.”
Principal Jill Collins was thrilled at the opportunity this project gave her students.
“It just moved me — the message it sent our kids,” she said Monday after the last bus pulled away.
Reach Misty Knisely at misty.knisely@pharos tribune.com or 574-732-5155