BRANDON — A splash of blue paint hits a white paper backdrop and drips slowly into a puddle of yellow.
Adriana Mussenden, a fourth-grader at Central Baptist School in Brandon, aims a paint-filled squirt gun and steps back to watch the colors merge.
"I really like modern art," she says.
Looking on, art teacher Sandra Ray nods approvingly.
"You get the idea," Ray says, addressing Mussenden and her classmates. "You can make a painting with something as ridiculous as a water gun, and if you can make $10,000 for splattering paint on a canvas, I say more power to ya."
These days Ray, a retired Tampa police officer, plays the part of a typical art teacher. Sporting a protective smock and funky heels, she encourages self expression. She works overtime preparing projects and lets the kids get messy.
But there is something different about Ray, 62.
She is one of three teachers volunteering to work at Central Baptist without compensation.
When budget cuts threatened the school's special interest programs in 2011, parent Stephanie Simon offered to teach music. Parent Mary Maddox signed on as the girls' physical education coach and Ray, whose granddaughter attends the school, took charge of the art program.
"These were paid positions prior to the economy falling in the toilet," Ray says. "I volunteered to teach art because it is a passion for me. I want my students to know they can be artists."
David West, the school's chief administrator, says Ray helped turn a negative situation into a positive.
"A few years ago student enrollment took a major hit," West says. "We went from more than 400 students to 235. We held onto our arts teachers as long as we could but we had to let them go. It was hard. These volunteers saw a need and they stepped up to help. Mrs. Ray is phenomenal. She'll do anything for her students."
Ray used to consider art a hobby. She took classes in college but never went pro. Now, she says, art consumes her life. She has 160 students from kindergarteners to high school seniors. Earlier in the school year, the children used dirt, leaves and other natural elements to create portraits of Jesus. Soon, they will make tin men using recycled soup cans.
"I think school would be boring without Mrs. Ray's class," fourth-grader Jenna Burgess says. "Like she says, we don't do crafts. We do art."
Central Baptist reimburses Ray for supplies but the teacher does what she can to cut costs. She fundraisers and seeks out donations. Home Depot donates materials for woodworking. Color Wheel donates paints. Recently, Ray contacted a friend who runs Regal Springs Tilapia Co. in Sarasota. The company agreed to donate fish for a fish fry fundraiser April 20 at Central Baptist. A portion of the proceeds will go to fund creative projects.
"Mrs. Ray is bubbling over with ideas," West says. "I'm more of an inside the box thinker whereas she's hardly ever thinking inside the box."
Last year, Ray started a theater arts class for middle school and high school students. The teens learned about set building, costuming and stage make up. Ray's elementary students had their papier-mache artwork, inspired by the books of Curious George, displayed at Barnes & Noble Booksellers.
Ray says she will continue to volunteer as long as she is needed. She wants to do more with recyclables and abstract art.
The water pistol experiment came about as a way to demonstrate how artists pushes boundaries.
"Next time we do this, Mrs. Ray will get a couple of those mack daddy squirt guns," she tells her students and their young eyes widen.
Sarah Whitman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.