Pair of Highlands Ranch artists adorn school with giant mural

Colorado-themed painting took about 120 hours

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A massive, colorful collage of Red Rocks, the Rocky Mountains, Denver and a giant elk now adorn the stairwell of Highlands Ranch High School thanks to two seniors who completed the mural during their winter break.

Seniors Joanna Nicholson and Audrey Ng dedicated nearly 120 hours to completing the Colorado-themed painting in the school's staircase rotunda, which is 66 feet long and about 6 feet tall.

Nicholson, 18, and Ng, 17, were selected for the project by their art instructor, Jon Cushing.

“They've been some of my top art students for a number of years now,” Cushing said.

The girls had already taken AP art once, so they were able to focus on independent studies this year.

An earlier mural in the same location, which had a similar theme, was completed back in 1997 by another one of Cushing's students.

“The Colorado flag is so iconic, so I approached the girls with the idea of refreshing the design,” Cushing said.

To start the painting, the students counted the number of blocks on the wall to create a grid, Ng said. Then, they began planning their design.

While both girls had used this method of “gridding” in the past, the sheer size of the wall and the fact that it is rounded presented whole new challenges.

From the left, the collage begins with a river weaving between foothills with snow-capped mountains in the distance. Next is a group of pine trees followed by a giant elk in front of Red Rocks — where the students will graduate in May — and a wildflower meadow.

In the center lies a giant Colorado flag with ribbons extending into the rest of the mural. The state flower, a columbine, and the state bird, a lark bunting, sit on either side of the large “C.”

The right side includes the Denver skyline, a lake, a forest of aspen trees and more of the Rocky Mountains.

Ng and Nicholson waited until all the students left on the last day of finals before beginning by painting white over the old mural.

“It was fun, I would say,” Ng said with a laugh. “Another exciting but terrifying moment. We knew 'we're into this now, there's no stopping, no going back.'”

Throughout the next two weeks, they spent up to 10 hours at a time working on the mural. The pair blasted music throughout the process, switching between Ng's pop music and Nicholson's heavy metal songs.

“We would alternate depending on our mood and depending on what we were feeling that day,” Nicholson said.

They also worked to blend their painting techniques, Cushing said.

“They have very distinct styles but they figured out what is that common ground that they have. And that's what you see in the mural — where they both flourish,” he said.

They completed the mural the Saturday night before school resumed, Nicholson said. On Jan. 6, they got to show the teachers, who were there for a training day. On Jan. 7, their fellow students saw the mural. Both groups expressed how impressed they were with the painting.

In the future, both girls plan to seek careers in the science and medical fields but hope to keep art as a major part of their lives.

“Some students win championships and put banners up,” Cushing said, “But (as) visual art students, they were able to leave their mark with a mural.”

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