Riverview’s Parsons earns grant to shoot inspirational posters

Michael Parsons, assistant principal at Riverview Elementary School, stands in his office beside pictures he and his wife, Arlene, have taken during their trips around the world. Parsons was recently awarded a $12,000 grant from the Lilly Foundation, in Indianapolis, to travel out west, where he’ll photograph locales such as Yellowstone National Park and subsequently make unique inspirational posters that will be hung up around Riverview.
Michael Parsons, assistant principal at Riverview Elementary School, stands in his office beside pictures he and his wife, Arlene, have taken during their trips around the world. Parsons was recently awarded a $12,000 grant from the Lilly Foundation, in Indianapolis, to travel out west, where he’ll photograph locales such as Yellowstone National Park and subsequently make unique inspirational posters that will be hung up around Riverview. Photo by Steve Clark.

Originally published on Jan. 14, 2016.

Inspirational posters adorn the walls of the Riverview Middle School main office, bearing the words and outdoor images that onlookers have come to expect from posters like them.

No such posters can be found tacked up in Michael Parsons’ office, however. Parsons, the school’s vice principal, prefers instead to decorate his walls with framed photos taken by his wife, Arlene, during their trips to various places around the world. Pictures of far-flung attractions like Machu Picchu, in Peru, and the Sydney Opera House, in Australia, hang on the wall behind Parsons’ desk.

Parsons has nothing against inspirational posters, a common sight at most schools; he just thinks they’re cliché. But thanks to a grant he recently obtained from the Lilly Endowment, in Indianapolis, he’s going to get the opportunity to furnish Riverview with inspirational posters that challenge onlookers in a way the current ones don’t.

Furthermore, in creating these posters, Parsons will get to tap into his affinity for both traveling and photography.

Parsons was awarded the grant, totaling $12,000, through the Lilly Endowment’s Teacher Creativity Fellowship Program, which gives Indiana educators the financial support and encouragement to pursue projects that are both personally and professionally fulfilling. While Parsons had known about this program for several years, last year was the first time he decided to submit an application.

“Melanie and Steve Park, who are both teachers here, wrote grants through the Eli Lilly and both were past recipients,” says Parsons. “Always thought it was so cool, but never really got around to writing one.

“Well, I got an email back in August and I just said, ‘I’m going to do it.’”

Initially, the only thing Parsons was certain of regarding his application was that it would involve going out west to locations such as Yellowstone National Park.

“That was always a staple; that’s where we wanted to go,” he says, referring to his family, which includes two young children. “But there are different things I wanted to do, but none of it seemed to fit the requirements and the philosophy of the grant.”

A video shown by Riverview Principal Curt Crago at the beginning of the school year helped give Parsons some direction with his application. The video was made by National Geographic photographer Dewitt Jones and centered on his picture-taking process. Parsons credits the video with reinvigorating his interest in photography, which he then incorporated into his application.

After that, Parsons got the notion to make inspirational posters from the pictures he’d be taking. These posters, however, would have a twist that would set them apart from others like them.

“You’ve seen them a thousand different times,” he says of inspirational posters. “‘Mindset.’ ‘Hard Work.’ I kind of came up with this idea of coming up with descriptive words for the posters, but not making them obvious. So, it could be ‘Falling Upward.’ It could be ‘Captured Expanse.’”

Parsons says it’s his hope that by giving the posters contradictory titles, it will encourage onlookers to study them more closely.

“I want people to have to go beyond just being told what it is, to be able to look at a picture and have to process it and say, ‘Well, what does that really mean to me? And how can I receive inspiration or motivation from that?’ So, it’s more of a different twist on what those posters look like.”

Parsons estimates he spent between 50 and 75 hours working on his application. In addition to receiving assistance from his wife, he says Steve and Melanie Park helped him out as well.

“I put a lot of work in, but I couldn’t have done it without their help, because I didn’t know how to do it,” he says of the Parks. “Melanie proofread everything.”

After submitting his application, titled “Captured Expanse: Perspective Requires a Different Lens,” Parsons waited several months as the endowment evaluated not only his application, but the 534 others it received.

The endowment funded a total of 100 applications. And Parsons found out last week that his was one of them.

“I’m just happy and very grateful for this opportunity,” says a beaming Parsons. “Very thankful.”

Parsons now has a year to complete his project. He hopes to venture out west with his family this summer, taking a photography class at Grand Teton National Park before visiting Yellowstone and other picturesque locales with his camera in hand. Parsons would also like to venture to the Smoky Mountains and the Outer Banks, located off the coast of North Carolina. Upon returning home, he’ll create a total of 10 inspirational posters, which will be displayed throughout Riverview.

Additionally, Parsons will be tasked with writing a report that he’ll present to Lilly Endowment officials in Indianapolis. He’ll also give that presentation to his fellow educators at Riverview, as well as the student body.

Presenting before the students is what he’s looking forward to the most.

“When it’s me, when they can walk in my office and say, ‘Mr. Parsons, that really excited me. What made you want to do that?,’ there’s a personal connection there and I think that’s what excites me about being able to bring (the experience) back to the kids and then have the posters all throughout the school,” says Parsons. “It’s a daily reminder that they see and maybe that will draw inspiration as well.”