By Bill Cantwell
---- — HAVERHILL — Every November for the last 19 years, the art room at Whittier Regional High has looked the same.
Paints and other materials designed to create Christmas characters cluttered the room.
Students swarmed around the project, banging nails, painting and gluing — doing whatever it took to make the effort a success.
And all of it happened under the watchful eyes of art teacher Sharon Welch and carpentry teacher Dan Sullivan, who guided the students each of those 19 years toward making floats for the city’s annual VFW Santa Parade. The Whittier floats won awards at the parade 17 of those 19 years.
Tomorrow’s parade marks the end of an era, with Welch and Sullivan retiring at the end of this school year. The Whittier float in tomorrow’s event is the last one the two teachers will help the students create.
“It’s been quite a run,’’ Sullivan said. “I’ve worked with some great kids over the years. Now, we see a lot of those students from 10 or 15 years ago along the route, and they have their children at the parade.’’
Sullivan called Welch “the creative force behind every float.’’
“I just put them together,’’ he said.
Welch had little time to talk, as she drilled and hot glued the last characters in place with her students before yesterday’s final school bell rang.
“It’s been a blast,’’ Welch said. “We’ve done it again and it feels good. As always, the kids come through. My favorite part is the collaboration between all the shops and how it brings a great sense of school spirit.’’
Tomorrow’s parade kicks off at 1 p.m. after judging of the floats at Hunking School in Haverhill. This year’s parade theme is “Santa Clause is Coming to Town,’’ but the event’s rules stipulated there could be no reference to Santa on the floats.
Whittier students can hardly wait to show off their unique rendition of a jolly fellow dressed in red. The float’s centerpiece is a huge lobster sitting upright atop a wooden trap, with large claws directing a team of seahorses to drive the float forward. Swimming beneath is the colorfully-painted cast of sea life from Disney’s movie “Finding Nemo” — all shaped from cardboard, newspaper and plaster.
Whittier has won the parade’s Best Overall award numerous times and also first place in the creativity category. The only year Whittier did not receive an award was when its students rode as the parade’s Grand Marshal, and therefore were not in the float competition.
Planning for the float began in Welch’s art classes in September, when students brainstormed ideas and did research and sketching. During a lively art class earlier this week, juniors Carlyle Bien-Aime of Haverhill and Cole Tremblay of Groveland were putting the finishing touches on Dory, the friendliest fish in the ocean.
“Ms. Welch is a good art teacher,’’ Carlyle said. “She’s full of energy and she’s always very into teaching us about art.’’
With three days left until the parade, the large art room at Whittier resembled Santa’s Workshop. Students were mixing and carefully brushing paint onto more than 100 sea creatures. Along with Dory, were the orange clown fish Nemo and his dad, Marlin, Squirt the sea turtle, Bruce the shark and Bloat the blowfish, who was having toothpicks installed in his head by Whittier senior Erin Thibodeau of Merrimac.
The floats made under the supervision of Welch and Sullivan have featured hundreds of characters, including Charlie Brown, “Family Guy’s” Brian, a “Frosty Air” plane flying over the rooftops of Haverhill, a giant Radio Flyer wagon, animals from “A Peaceable Kingdom” and dozens of pairs of shoes for the 2006 “Seasons Greetings from Haverhill, MA.”
“I’m very sad to be losing two great instructors,’’ Whittier Superintendent William DeRosa said. “Their dedicated service goes far beyond what you see here on the float. It’s a major collaborative effort between the different vocational-technical areas each year, and it instills a wonderful sense of pride in our school.’’
Whittier junior Krystal Sune of Haverhill said she has looked forward to participating in the float building since her freshman year. Art is a half-year elective class open to junior and seniors. Krystal has attended the Haverhill parade since she was in the eighth grade and noticed the crowd-pleasing Whittier floats, she said.
“They are always unique and they have personality,’’ she said. “The floats won’t be the same without Ms. Welch. She thinks beyond an idea. Who would’ve thought of a ‘Finding Nemo’ theme for a Santa Parade float?’’
The float is part of the art curriculum at Whittier. Students are tested on their midterm exam on what they learned about the principles of art from the project. They will employ the same skills on an independent art project later in the year, Welch said.
“I look at it as a sculpture from headlights to tail lights,” she said, surveying the 24-foot flat bed. “It started as a blank canvas and had a beginning, middle and now, an end.”