Making a landmark in Tupelo

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – The students in Kit Stafford’s art class at Thomas Street Elementary dipped paintbrushes into trays with globs of paint – reds, blues, whites and yellows.
They huddled around a steel sculpture of a guitar and painted balloons, popcorn and cotton candy.
In some ways, it was just another day in Stafford’s art class, students working earnestly to create a project. The difference is that this project will be on display for years in downtown Tupelo.
The 6-foot-tall guitar that the students painted last week is one of 14 that will be placed around Tupelo next month to celebrate what would have been Elvis’ 75th birthday.
The goal is for the guitars to be a lasting Tupelo landmark, the way statues of cows, swans and carousel horses have been in other cities.
“We need city sculpture, and I think this would be a fun way to get the kids involved,” said Stafford, who came up with the idea for the project.
The Tupelo Public School District has worked with the Downtown Tupelo Main Street Association, which secured a grant to fund the project.
Each school in the district painted one of the guitars, which are modeled after the first guitar Elvis bought at Tupelo Hardware. The guitars also sit a on base that resembles the Tupelo TVA sign at Crosstown. They were designed and built by Nettleton-based Digital Impressions.
“It has been wonderful to see how excited the students are about it,” Stafford said. “As soon as it arrived, they were excited to put paint on the guitar.
“It is exciting for them to see that they can have this effect on the community. Usually their art is displayed around school or at home, but to have their artwork displayed downtown in their own town is really a big deal. It is a huge self-esteem boost for them.”
The painted guitars will be unveiled Jan. 7. The Downtown Tupelo Main Street Association will determine their location.
“We have such a strong community spirit that embraces the arts,” Assistant Superintendent Diana Ezell said. “I just think this is another way for our students to participate in that.
“We’re trying very hard to do things where our school system supports the community, and this is a visible way for doing that.”
There is more to the project that the guitars. Physical education, art and music teachers throughout the district are working to incorporate units about Tupelo’s rich music heritage.
“I think there is value in knowing our community and those who have contributed to it,” Ezell said. “Our No. 1 goal is to train students to function as productive citizens, and this ties into that.”
Stafford’s kindergarten to second-grade classes will expand upon their guitars by reading different children’s books about rock ’n’ roll and then creating art based upon those books.
Teachers and students at each school did extensive research about Elvis to conceptualize a design for their guitars. Each school was responsible for coming up with its own design.
Themes for the guitars include Elvis’ service in the Army, the Blue Suede Cruise, Heartbreak Hotel and vintage record albums.
Thomas Street’s guitar is based on Elvis’ homecoming concert at the Tupelo Fairgrounds.
It has a sign reading “Tupelo welcomes Elvis Presley home,” a Ferris wheel, balloons, a box of popcorn, some cotton candy and even a replica of a ticket stub from the event.
The back of the guitar will have a depiction based upon a photo of Elvis singing at the fair.
“I tried to think about what would be fun for kids this age to paint,” Stafford said. “Doing a fair and a festival got their enthusiasm and offered a lot of colors we could use.”
While second-graders at the school did much of the work on the guitar, every student will leave a mark. Along the guitar’s border will be polka-dots created by all of the students at the school.
“Every child will be able to put their fingerprint on it,” Stafford said.

Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or at chris.kieffer@djournal.com.