Roswell Daily Record, Mark Wilson, Associated Press
In this Feb. 15, 2012 photo, fifth graders at El Capitan work on their mural in the school hallway celebrating the New Mexico centennial, in Roswell, N.M. Local artist Noel Marquez was on hand to give guidance on the project which should be complete later this month.

ROSWELL, N.M. — New Mexico never looked so colorful.

Fifth-grade students at El Capitan Elementary have been learning the history of the state through the arts this month, working together to paint a mural in honor of the New Mexico Centennial. The mural, four weeks in the making, is a product of the Creative Learning Center's Legacy Project, which connects local artists with fifth-grade students in the Roswell Independent School District.

Noel Marquez, a muralist who has been helping the students with the project, says that more than anything else, the experience of painting allows students an opportunity to create their own voice.

"These kids have a lot to say, and by pulling out that creative inner voice of theirs, it makes them better students in this school," Marquez said. "That's what the program is trying to do, is show them they can create solutions instead of being directed to nothing but solid answers. There are many ways to answer questions."

The mural features a variety of different themes and symbols unique to the state, ranging in categories of science, nature, math, archaeology, art, music and technology. The foundational background of the painting is a galaxy, which Marquez sees as a metaphor for the world we live in. Everything else, he says, are unique contributions of the 75 fifth-grade students at El Capitan. Marquez says that, essentially, these contributions become self-portraits.

"This is like a collage of all their creative ideas, of who they feel they are right now and what they connect with, which helps them to be who they need to be. It also helps them with research, to come up with information that has a little bit more complexity. We're more than just symbols. The symbols are there, but it transforms into a limitless universe — and they can be part of it. They're not limited to New Mexico.

"But we use the flavor of New Mexico to be who we need to be," Marquez said.

The students contribute by proposing drawings of what they want to place within the galaxy, a process that Marquez feels helps the students breathe life into their still-forming ideas. Once a proposal is ready, students begin painting their drawings into the mural, which so far has resulted in icons such as bears, a buffalo dancer, railroads, a windmill, a monarch butterfly, reptiles, San Ildefonso Pueblo potter Maria Martinez, license plates, pinto beans, and the seal of New Mexico.

Marquez, who was born and raised in Artesia, believes it's important that students don't just limit their ideas to New Mexico's statehood — and he encourages them to look deep into the history of the area.

"I ask them, 'What is the history of these grounds?' Because it's more than just 100 years of state government. The state of New Mexico, it's a nice celebration, but the grounds of New Mexico are thousands of years old. And if you look at the images there are lots of Native American influences there."

Marquez expects the mural to be completed by the middle of next week. He said students have been having a lot of fun with the project, a cohesive effort that shows students the multiplicity of people, cultures and traditions.

"Diversity is a very important message," Marquez said. "It's an avenue for everybody to look at a piece — and enter. And they're all part of the answer. There's not one answer; there are many answers and many voices."

Information from: Roswell Daily Record,