It was July 2020 and students at Hymba Yumba Independent School were returning to class after weeks of pandemic-related home learning. Stress levels were running high. Students were disengaged and conflicts were breaking out.

Visual arts teacher Jessica Chesterfield’s response was to hit the accelerator on her Rainbow Serpent mural project. The whole family of Hymba Yumba including students, teachers, Indigenous Education Workers, administration and operations staff, Elders, founder and patron Uncle Albert Holt and members of the community were asked to make a personal contribution to a vast depiction of the creation story. Positive results followed quickly – and not only in the completion of the striking artwork.

Jessica said she was “awestruck” by the willingness of older students to mentor younger ones, and by improved attendance and resolution of interpersonal issues.

At the 200-student Prep to Year 12 school in Springfield, south east Queensland, where 85% of students are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, the project tapped into the cultural purpose of art – shared with Jessica by supportive parents, First Nations artists and local Elders’ – as “a collaborative endeavour in which stories, knowledges, and skills were offered and respected from a variety of sources.”

Now she is working with colleagues to embed art practice and the shared learning approach across the curriculum. Local Elders and Indigenous artists have joined the Many People One Art program, which is extending to other schools and public commissions.