WENATCHEE — It’s an emotional thing, standing among the names of 470 Wenatchee High School seniors.

On Saturday morning, Spokane artist Tom Pettoello and assistant Carol McQuaid carefully plotted lines that would guide Tom’s paint strokes, marking each graduate’s name on the grass in front of Wenatchee High School.

Wenatchee High School Principal Eric Anderson contacted Pettoello and invited him to commemorate graduates through field paint as the school made plans to honor the class of 2020. Anderson was the assistant principal at Rogers High School where Pettoello is currently the art teacher. “It was an easy call to make,” explained Anderson. “Tom is an incredibly talented, award-winning artist and a friend.” When not teaching, Pettoello runs a turf painting company, Turf Graphics NW. Pettoello has been painting fields for the last 11 years for professional, college and high school sports teams. His work has also been featured on ESPN, Fox and ROOT Sports.

Pettoello’s work quickly gained notoriety after he began painting fields with senior names for schools as a way to honor the graduates amid the COVID-19 pandemic. News of his work went viral on social media, causing schools across Washington to seek him out.

Pettoello came up with the idea while working with East Valley High School in Spokane on a field graphic to commemorate the EVHS Class of 2020. Pettoello estimates he will have completed 16 projects in Washington and California and will have written well over 5,000 names when he’s done.

The reactions when students and parents see the completed work is always the same, explains Pettoello. “There are tears from the parents and joy on the faces of the kids — you can just tell it means a lot to people,” he says. Families snap pictures and sometimes leave names and flowers next to the painted names of their loved ones. Pettoello and McQuaid feel like they’re helping to fill a void that was missing for grads. “We hope that when students look back on this time they will not feel like they missed out on something, but rather they got something extra,” Pettoello explained.

Doing this work in a single day takes physical and mental endurance. Pettoello compares it to running a marathon.

He painstakingly free hands each letter in every name with cans of field spray paint. “This takes a great deal of focus, a strong back, and some pretty good penmanship.” Each project takes approximately 10 hours of labor to complete. Field painting, says Pettoello, went from being a challenge to something that feels really good.

“The names come alive for me when parents tell stories about the kids or teachers share memories about having them in class,” says Pettoello.

And just like the fleeting moments of high school, this one of a kind artwork will soon become a memory. In a few weeks, the paint will fade and new grass will grow where the names were marked.

But even though this tribute is temporary, the mark that the Class of 2020 has left behind them is a permanent one.

Diana Haglund is the communications director for the Wenatchee School District.