When Becky Earland died in a coach accident, her parents and school friends found a positive and emotive way of commemorating her. Hilary Wilce reports
It is something that schools experience too often. A pupil is killed in an accident. The family is distraught, friends are inconsolable, and everyone in school feels the loss deeply.
How do you commemorate a young life which has been so shockingly cut short?
When Becky Earland, a Year 11 pupil at Hillview school for girls, in Tonbridge, Kent, was killed in a coach accident in Austria in August 2004, her family and school came together to produce a unique work of art that offered everyone involved a chance to remember her in their own way.
The artwork - a spiralling dream catcher mosaic - now hangs in the school's new foyer, and a booklet containing memories of Becky lets visitors know what it is about.
But they don't need this understanding to get something from it. Sarah Pledge, the school's art technician, says that the mosaic changes throughout the day as the light falls on it, and that it has great presence and power. "Even people who were not involved say 'There's something about it'."
Hillview is a large, 11-18 performing arts college, which has to compete for pupils with a neighbouring girls' grammar school. It encourages creativity, and about 15 students stepped up to work on the project, even though most had not done art since Year 9.
"It was so nice to be part of it," says Amy Hopper, 18. "We started talking about ideas in the October after she died, and when we began working on it friends came back to school to help, and we were all talking about Becky.
It did help. It was emotional. She was such a lovely person, always happy.
There was never a dull moment when she was about."
The project sprang from Geoff and Celia Earland's wish to fund a sculpture in memory of their daughter. But talks with the school prompted the idea of commissioning an artist to work with pupils on a collaborative project.
Guy Portelli, a local mosaic artist, was chosen, and talked with Becky's family and friends, as well as the school head, Stephen Bovey, and Becky's form tutor, Linda Mason. "It was a journey. None of us knew where it was leading," says Guy Portelli. "Initially, the girls thought I was going to come in and do it for them."
Instead, anyone who wanted to be involved was asked to keep a scrapbook of thoughts, drawings, poems and memories of Becky. Images were then chosen for the girls to mosaic. For inspiration, they looked at the flower landscapes of Gustav Klimt, and a series of stained glass windows by Marc Chagall in a local church, All Saints, in Tudeley. Guy Portelli taught them how to mosaic and they worked on flowers, fish, butterflies and rainbows, sticking them on to paper, for him to transfer into the artwork. The shape of Becky's hand as a baby, from an imprint donated by her mother, was incorporated.
Sessions took place in the lunchtimes and on Friday afternoons. Becky's father came in to help, and took material home for her mother to work on.
"It was too hard for her to come in herself," says Guy Portelli, "but she had some definite ideas about what she wanted." It was Celia Earland who decided that a bird in the mosaic should be a hawk not a dove, and that the final shape of the work should be a dream catcher. "She loved the spiritual connotations of the idea."
Amanda Pritchard, 18, remembers the act of making it as "quite violent in a way. We had to use gloves and goggles, but it was good fun and I liked how we all came together to do it. We used to talk about her, have a cry. It was nice to be celebrating her life in a good way. We wanted to do something, but we didn't know what we wanted to do. She loved horseriding and athletics. She was an inspiration. She always took the bad with the good and got on with things."
The mosaics were finished by the end of the school year and the piece was welded over last summer. A scalloped border, a bird, a star and dancing figures were added in nickel-plated bronze, and the finished artwork was hung in the newly-completed foyer last October.
"There were lots of her friends and family there, the local vicar blessed the sculpture, and the head and someone from the family spoke," says head of art and technology Cavan Pledge, who is married to art technician Sarah.
The final piece is subtle and contemplative. Some images emerge only slowly from the predominantly blue background. "The horse is like a ghost horse galloping through it," points out Cavan Pledge. The dancing figures spell out Becky, but only on close inspection, and there are interesting shifts in scale and perspective. "It is, if you like, a contemporary view of a rosary window," says Guy Portelli.
But the project hasn't ended there. Becky's father, Geoff, who works as a fire officer, has discovered a real talent for making mosaic and sometimes now helps Guy Portelli in his workshop. Meanwhile, in the school's superb new art department, younger pupils are working on large-scale mosaics, using tiles donated by Guy Portelli, and looking to Becky Earland's dream catcher for inspiration. "We wouldn't have dared embark on this, without having first done that," says Cavan Pledge.