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Auction Gold: Student Art Projects

Keepsakes created by students make extremely popular auction items. Here's how one group with a slew of creative ideas cashed in.
by Bethany Kandel

The bidding was fierce at a Saturday night auction in New York City last March for a set of six framed, hand-painted watercolors. The artists, however, weren't there to watch all the excitement; they were home in bed. After all, they were only 5 years old.

By the end of the night, dozens of pieces of original artwork done by these kindergartners and their fellow elementary school students at P.S. 166 on Manhattan's Upper West Side had raked in more than $8,000 as part of a schoolwide auction total of $50,000.

The six paintings alone sold for $1,540—more than two high-profile items combined: a wine tasting for 25 people and tickets to see a Temptations and Four Tops concert, complete with backstage passes and photo op with the performers.

At many New York City schools, both public and private, the parent group holds an annual auction as a major fundraiser. Along with donations of gift certificates from local businesses and restaurants, packaged gift baskets, and services offered by parents (from chess lessons to sessions with a personal trainer), it's often traditional for each class to make a unique project to be offered for sale during the live or silent auction.

These collaborative masterpieces include hand-painted footstools with each child's thumbprint, bookshelves decoupaged with student drawings, decorated toy boxes, and books and CDs of original stories and poetry.

The P.S. 166 Parent Association sends out a list of suggested projects to class representatives early in the year and encourages parents, teachers, and students to get creative. Many projects start with inexpensive items ready for decorating. They're acquired from unfinished-wood furniture stores, craft suppliers, even Ikea and Wal-Mart.

Some projects are purely whimsical (a decorative kite made for hanging, not flying), while others relate to what the students are learning in school (a book of Iroquois names). What's great about these collaborative efforts is that everyone gets involved to give something back to the school, says Deborah Lott, P.S. 166 PA auction co-chairwoman. Even better, she adds, they raise big bucks for PA-supported enrichment and tutoring programs, computer labs, science kits, musical instruments, books, and other supplies.

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Parents have been known to spend thousands on a glitter-and-glue-encrusted object they don't need and can't use, simply because their kids participated and they want to own it or because they want to make a substantial donation to the school. "The children get very caught up in the projects and have a lot of pride in their workmanship," Lott says. "They hear all about the auction, and it's their only contribution; they want to feel they're part of it." The only problem, she says, is that each child knows mommy and daddy are going to the auction, and they want them to bring home the project they participated in. But not everyone gets the prize.

One parent who got carried away this past year was Buffy Perry. She desperately wanted the Andy Warhol-style self-portraits done in fluorescent blue-and-green tones by her son Zachary's third-grade class; they go with the Statue of Liberty retrospective done in oranges and reds by her daughter Taylor's class for the auction three years ago.

After a heated bidding war, Perry beat out another family with a total of $1,300. "I couldn't quite believe we spent so much, but I had promised Zachary, so we had no cap," she says. "The look on my son's face when I told him we won made it money well-spent." Plus, she says, it's a beautiful piece of art that hangs in the entryway to her home, opposite her daughter's. "It was a great project and a great cause, and it will have lasting memories. It will be fun for Zachary to see what his interpretation of himself was at 8 when he's 18."

Artists at Work

The process of creating auction items can be a fun class experience. One Tuesday afternoon before the auction, the first-floor hallway of the school was covered with a clear shower curtain. Excited kindergartners in class K-102 decorated it with their own renditions of themselves.

While many of her classmates drew simple round circles, added ears, mouth, nose, and eyes, and quickly signed their names, Annabelle Schultz took her time. The 5-year-old carefully shaped her mouth like a bright red heart, added spidery black eyelashes, long brown hair slightly flipped at the ends, and earrings, all with a background of spring flowers. Nearby, Atash Massiri drew himself as a vampire—that year's Halloween costume.

Down the hall, kindergarten teacher Stephanie Pappas laid out large pieces of paper on several tables and had students rotate to each, filling in details of their neighborhoods with crayons. "This is a real group effort," she explained as the children put in a sun, flowers, rainbows, stores, dogs, even artist Christo's saffron gates that hung in nearby Central Park.

The project reflected this year's study of the senses and the role of the children in their communities, she explained. "It led us to talk about many things, including how each of us gets to school, the sounds we hear, the weather, and what we see all around us." Each child also hid himself in the pictures, in the manner of Where's Waldo?

The payoff, Pappas said, comes when the children see their work framed. "They're always amazed. They say, 'Wow! I made fancy art.' "

In the past, some parents have purchased the class projects at the auction and then donated them back to the classroom or to the school for everyone's enjoyment. Pappas still has the yellow director's chair her third-graders decorated for the auction two years ago, which parents chipped in to buy.

"The kids love to come back to visit it," she says. "They're proud of their contributions."

Creating Art That Sells

Get teachers involved. Ask for the teachers participation and cooperation, whether it's to come up with an idea for a project shed like the class to work on or to determine a theme based on something being studied in class. You need your teacher on board so that the children can work on the project during class time.

Pick something thats age-appropriate. That way the project will be done by the children and not by parents, making it more appealing.

Make the project durable. If it's a bowl or tray to be used, cover any decoupage with a waterproof sealant. Use permanent markers, paint, and sealant designed specifically for the type of material you're working with, whether it's plastic, wood, metal, or something else. Ask at a local craft or hardware store for product recommendations.Label it. Be sure to put the school, class number, and date somewhere on the project so the buyer will be able to remember it forever.

Have a theme. The finished project will look nicer if theres a consistent element, and its often easier for young children to be artistic when they're told to draw a self-portrait or an animal, for example, than when they're just told to draw anything they would like. But its also important to allow for individual creativity.

Think outside the gavel. Class projects don't have to be sold at auctions only; consider promoting them at an annual school dinner, show, or any other schoolwide fundraiser.

Creative Class Projects

Decoupage pewter trays
Pewter trays were sprayed with primer and covered with enamel paint. Student drawings (copied and reduced to 2-inch-by-3-inch rectangles) were sprayed with clear acrylic, then attached and sealed. Created by a second-grade class. Three trays sold individually for $200, $375, and $400, for a total of $975.

Animal bookshelf
An unfinished wooden bookshelf was painted white. The top, sides, and the front of each shelf were decorated with pictures of animals drawn by the children. The animals were cut out and glued to the bookshelf with several coats of sealant. Created by a first-grade class; sold for $500.

Shower curtain
Parents divided a clear shower curtain into 24 squares, one for each student and an extra to write the class number and year. Each child used colored permanent markers to draw a self-portrait in his square. Created by a kindergarten class; sold for $400.

Andy Warhol-style self-portraits
Each student painted a self-portrait on a 6-inch by 8-inch hard canvas using a palette of acrylic paint in the blues and greens family. These were then mounted to a larger pre-stretched canvas with thick double-stick tape. Created by a third-grade class; sold for $1,300.

Neighborhood watercolors
Students made four large and two small drawings of P.S. 166 and the neighborhood. They used crayons washed over with water. Created by a kindergarten class; sold individually for: $90, $175, $225, $250, $300, and $500, for a total of $1,540.

Alphabet mirror
A standard white door mirror was decorated around the edges with the first initial of each child in the class. The students painted wooden letters and decorated them with colored rhinestones. The letters were coated and sealed with shiny sealant and glue around the mirror with a glue gun. Created by a fourth-grade class; sold for $150.

The kite was chosen as a timeless and ageless toy. It was designed and constructed by a parent with nylon and wood. Each child designed a felt symbol of identity, which was then sewed to the kite. Although meant to be displayed, it actually will fly. Created by a second-grade class; sold for $350.

Thumbprint stepstool
The stepstool was decorated using paints and markers. Each child added his thumbprint, which was turned into an animal by the teacher using markers. Created by a prekindergarten class; sold for $70.

Weather watercolors
Using oil pastels and watercolors, five children each created a framed piece based on a class study of weather. The panels were themed Windy, Snowy, Cloudy, Rainy, and Sunny. The works were mounted and set in maple frames. Created by a first-grade class; sold individually for $300, $350, $425, $450, $500, for a total of $2,025.

Our Iroquois Names
This book was put together to take advantage of the students creative writing skills and because the class was studying Native American legends. Each student chose an Iroquois name and wrote and illustrated a story and poem about its origin. These were typed and printed on quality card stock and bound in a spiral book with a laminated cover. Created by a fourth-grade class; sold for $200.

Word Slam: CD of poems
Since this class was studying poetry, a parent recorded each child reading a favorite poem he had written. CDs were burned with the poetry interspersed with musical interludes. Another parent took photos of each child to create a CD cover with their pictures. Thirty-eight CDs were sold in advance of the auction. Created by a third-grade class; sold for $20 each for a total of $760.



#21 Debbie 2011-09-09 12:23
I am considering heading up this kind of project but want to tweak it to include more families in our rural, low-income area. Instead of this being an auction, I want to make it a raffle where every parent would have the chance to win the art projects. We have 30 pre-k through 5th grade classes so even if we only sold $50 in tickets for each project, we would still make $1500. (I expect it would be much higher as some will purchase multiple tickets.)
I'm also considering asking each parent to contribute $1 towards the costs associated with the projects. Bookcases, shower curtains, step stools, paint, decoupage, etc would get mighty pricey for 30 classrooms.
#20 Kara Hade 2010-01-15 22:17
Hi, I'm head mom or project leader for my daughter's 4th grade class auction project.

I'm very interested in the Andy Warhol style self portraits done by 4th graders that you mention on this site.

Can you provide any other additional info about this project?

Did the children draw their portrait first and then paint over it?

About how big was the finished canvas containing the other portraits?

Do you have any photos of the finished project?

Thank you so much,

Kara Hade

P.S. 199 Parent
#19 Cheryl Motsenbocker 2009-10-30 12:34
I would love to see a picture of the Andy Warhol painting as well!! Sounds cool!!
#18 Sydney 2009-10-19 18:32
Does anyone have a picture of the finished pewter tray project? What kind of drawings did the children do? Was there a theme to the trays?
#17 Juliet Schreiner 2009-09-30 03:42
I want to do the andy warhol-type self portraits for our fourth grade auction project. I would like to see the finished project described above and some direction on how you worked with the children to make it.
#16 Teresa 2009-09-23 11:10
I am at a loss for our 7th grade project this year! Last year we did a great project where I took hats and boas and suit coats and ties and the kids all dressed up and I took lots of black and white photos of them on the playground as well as a class picture and individuals. We decopauged a black trunk with the playground photos covering the inside lid. The class photo was in the center. The outside had the individual photos of each child. It turned out so well and everyone wanted their child's photo so we had 8 x 10 individual photos autographed. I had asked each child to write on a 3 x 5 index card what they wanted to be when they grew up which I added to the individual photos that the parents could purchase in the country store. I put Future Lawyer, Doctor, Teacher, Race Car Driver etc. Our little class is very dramatic so this project fit them perfertly. Now What?!!!!!!!!!! !!!!!!!
#15 Kerry 2009-09-17 04:30
We hold an auction each year and we have set the teachers with projects. The teachers do the same project each year and it takes the guess work out of it and the kids look forward to the projects each year.
#14 Lisa Gundlach 2009-09-03 00:34
Hi Mary- Sorry this article is several years old and we don't have the information about the pewter trays. A comment above brings up a good idea: try some second hand stores for trays. Another alternative would be to get a wooden tray that can be found at any of the large craft stores.
~Lisa @ PTO Today
#13 Mary 2009-09-01 15:29
I do not see any responses to those who inquired about the pewter trays. I would also love to know more about this project. Does anyone have any info or photos?
#12 Lisa 2009-03-09 11:17
For the tile framed chalk board and cork board, where did you get the boards from?

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