Hundreds of students at Aquinas Catholic Schools are getting in on a La Crosse community art project.

Public school officials announced the La Crosse Compassion Project last year, promising to get more than 6,000 district students to create compassion-themed art on 6-by-6-inch canvases.

Supporters from local businesses and community organizations have continued to come forward to back the project, interested in a positive message presented in paint, crayon and colored pencil. Aquinas’ participation means there will be more canvases than can fit in the Pump House Regional Arts Center for the May 2 opening, but organizers are hunting for other venues, said Tim Riley, executive director of the La Crosse Public Education Foundation.

“The idea of celebrating this ideal on a community-wide level resonates naturally with the greater La Crosse community,” Riley said.

Aquinas officials latched onto the idea after counselors at the high school heard about the project through colleagues.

“We actually decided, let’s have the whole system do it,” President Kurt Nelson said.

Children channeling compassion through artwork fits with Aquinas’ faith-based values, but the project also gets students to think creatively, Nelson said.

“We’ll get a chance to see what it look like through kids eyes,” Nelson said.

Aquinas’ involvement adds to the “snowball” effect of the community-focused project, Riley said. Groups such as the La Crosse Area Chamber of Commerce and the Mental Health Coalition of the Greater La Crosse Area have endorsed the project. Local businesses, including the La Crosse Tribune, have also partnered with the foundation.

“I knew it was going to happen when I started it,” Riley said. “I think it’s a recognition that we live in a compassionate community.”

Artwork by Aquinas and public school students will be on display from May 2 to June 28. Even before Aquinas joined there was enough compassion-themed canvases to cover “every square inch of the walls” at the Pump House, Riley said. Downtown eatery The Wine Guyz has offered its space as a satellite venue, but it’s still not enough to hold the work from Aquinas students.

Riley unveiled the project in June. He helped coordinate a similar effort in Appleton, Wis., in 2011, while working there as an art museum director.

Riley based the idea on research by Richard Davidson, a University of Wisconsin-Madison neuroscientist, renowned for his work examining the connection between compassion and mental health.

Supporters will meet with Davidson in Madison next week to discuss the project. Davidson is scheduled to visit La Crosse June 2 when the work of La Crosse students is on display.

The outpouring of support for the Compassion Project is a testament to local schools, Riley said.

“That’s not only heart warming,” Riley said. “As research shows, it’s good for you.”

“The idea of celebrating this ideal on a community-wide level resonates naturally with the greater La Crosse community.” Tim Riley, executive director of the La Crosse Public Education Foundation
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