Public Art to Revitalize Art Education
by Tracy Van Duinen

Creating murals as a class project is an adventure with many twist and turns. You have to navigate around your students’ enthusiasm and the administration’s apprehension to guide your mural team in a way that creates a sense of accomplishment for the group and for each participant. The result is an authentic and fun learning experience for the entire school community.

Experiences And Themes

The murals I create with my students are based on the experiences they have outside the classroom. Personal and community experiences are an endless and valuable resource for theme development for class projects and ultimately the murals.

Often an important theme is suggested by an immediate, shared experience. This was the case with one of the last murals I completed with my students at Austin Community Academy High School on Chicago’s West Side. It was third quarter—the time I usually do a mural project. On the day we were going to start developing the theme, a huge fight broke out in the hallway outside my room. When a fight of this magnitude breaks out, unfortunately, many students come to watch. Afterwards, the play-by-play commentary finds its way into the classroom.

As I was getting everyone settled down in order to begin a discussion about what our mural was going to be about, I realized that the discussion had already started. I redirected the focus of my students’ discussion by asking them if they were tired of all the violence they saw around them, in the schools, in the streets, and at home. The majority said they were. Then I asked them, “If this is so, why do you run to watch a fight when one breaks out in the school?”

From this discussion, several ideas emerged for the mural Words of Wisdom, Faces of Youth, the Elements of Unity Combined. Black-on-Black violence quickly became the central theme; violence amongst all humankind was an underlying theme. The students formulated questions to ask other students about their experiences with violence. From these interviews, the students pulled quotes that were placed in the mural alongside portraits of the young artists. 

The art is more profound and the thematic development is richer when grounded in the students’ life experiences. In watching the news, I notice that many of the issues my students face also affect rural and suburban youth. Your students and mine have both individual and common experiences that can be used to create important public art. You just need to tap into it.   

Understanding The Situation

As a new teacher working in one of the most impoverished communities in Chicago, I wanted to develop a basic art curriculum that was relevant and meaningful to a group of youth who are usually more focused on survival than on education. Of all Chicago neighborhoods, Austin has the greatest percentage of residents under the age of 25. The neighborhood high school has a 100% African American population. More than 90% of the school’s population qualifies for the federal free lunch program, making it one of the poorest schools in the city. During the 2002-2003 school year, the percentage of special education students comprised more than 40% of the student body. Gangs are prevalent in this community because of the large number of adolescents, the poverty, and the lack of adequate social services. The challenges facing a first-time teacher were daunting.  

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Getting Started, Getting Permission

After struggling with lesson after lesson in which my students found no real connection to the subject matter, I turned to a public art piece that would literally transform their day-to-day experience in “our” classroom. I was introduced to murals as a viable classroom lesson option by my Art Education Professor, Olivia Gude. She and other members of Chicago Public Art Group had done many murals in various elementary and high schools in and around the city.

I was teaching color theory and decided that the classroom was in desperate need of color. I had never painted on a wall so I was a little afraid of trying it. I came up with the idea to pull down the acoustic ceiling tiles - approximately 90 in total - and paint on them.

Being a first year teacher, I knew that my principal wouldn’t allow me to do this if I sought approval. I remembered another lesson from my professor about mural projects. “Sometimes it’s easier to get forgiven than to get permission.” This was the path I decided to take.

I had a discussion with the students about inspiration and we decided to go to the library and find quotes taken from people from all walks of life that would inspire us when we looked up for guidance. Each student picked a color scheme and created a design by intersecting the words from the quotes with geometric lines. Color schemes were limited to cool, warm, and analogous; this allowed me to organize the final product in a way that created harmony and order as one looked across the entire ceiling. We didn’t have enough tiles for all the students, so we painted the base of the tables and an assortment of wooden chairs in the room as well.

This project took five weeks. At one point, I was visited by the school engineer, who informed me that it was a fire code violation to have all the tiles off the ceiling. The next day I was visited by the assistant principal who told me that he was supposed to sign off on a project of this sort before it began. He then begged me to finish the project within the week. Two weeks later, I invited the administration up to the room to view the final product. They were pleasantly surprised to see the transformation and were encouraged by how excited the students were pointing out “their” tiles.

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A Temporary Mural Made To Last

After that experience, I had to get permission for the next mural. The administration liked what I had done in my room, but they were still apprehensive about letting me paint on the walls of the school.

Our next project was created for a school-wide cultural festival. The mural was the catalyst for the multi-disciplinary project. I had won a small educational grant from the Oppenheimer Foundation to develop curriculum and decided to focus on the Harlem Renaissance period of African American history. The Harlem Renaissance was a time of great significance for artists, writers, performers, and philosophers of color. It was a part of their cultural legacy that these students should know about.

Because the mural could not be painted directly on a wall, we painted it on half-inch plywood sheets. The mural was designed as a backdrop for a performance on the main stage. However, without letting the administration know my plan, I made the plywood wall big enough to fit perfectly in the school’s smaller auditorium—a place frequently used for meetings, assemblies, and student gatherings. We painted the panels on a temporary 2 by 4’ wall that was constructed on the main stage.

The mural’s theme was based on Romare Bearden’s collage The Block; the overall design and student artwork was developed in Bearden’s narrative collage style. Each student wrote an essay about the personal renaissance he or she anticipated experiencing within the next ten years. The essays had to include a section on how this transformation could also affect their community.

Digital photographs were taken of each student. The photos were used to create a personal collage relating to the written piece. We then took these collages and created the final composition using pieces from a majority of each student’s individual works. The look of the original collages was maintained in the mural by gluing large-scale black and white Xerox copies to a painted background using acrylic medium as an adhesive and coating.

We unveiled the 36’ by 8’ foot mural during a school wide assembly celebrating the culture of the Harlem Renaissance. The mural was a great success and when the administration requested that we make the mural a permanent addition to the school environment, they were delighted to learn that it would fit perfectly onto a prominent wall in the small auditorium.

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Staging A Permanent Mural

The following year we created a 72’ x 16’ mural on the main stage of the school as a permanent backdrop. We had again received Oppenheimer Family Foundation funding and planned to continue our exploration of the intertwining of Black history and culture. The students researched and discussed other significant periods in African American history. The majority of the students chose the civil rights movement; this ultimately became the focus of the mural.

To spark interest in the mural, I showed slides of the Wall of Respect and the Wall of Truth, two early street murals with politically charged subject matter related to the planned themes for our mural. At this time, I was working as an apprentice muralist under John Pitman-Weber and was influenced by the way in which he segmented the composition into a series of “small” vignettes. I felt that this style of composition would allow me to include the greatest amount of student work into the mural by creating a section that included many symbolic drawings of prominent African Americans.

One example is a Chicago Bears Jersey with the number 34 and wings representing the late Walter Payton. A whimsical segment depicted a box of Jell-O, taking the place of Bill Cosby. Students with more sophisticated art skills drew portraits of Martin Luther King, Young Malcolm X, and Freedom Riders. Other students depicted periods in Black History, using such iconography as broken chains for ending slavery or a railroad engine for the Underground Railroad. To complete and weave together the composition we introduced African textile patterns and symbols.

Because this mural was to be used as the permanent backdrop on the school’s stage, we included an 8’x 8’ white screen in the middle of the wall for projection purposes. This would allow interaction with the wall depending on what was happening on the stage. I fabricated a hanging platform high in front of the stage to accommodate a projector.

The wonderful thing about this mural was that I had complete autonomy for the design from the administration due to the previous successes with public art in the school. The principal wanted to be the one to unveil it at our second annual cultural festival with the young artists being asked to stand and take a bow. After this mural, I was free to paint on any wall without getting special permission.

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How It Works

In working with urban teens, a teacher must foster the types of relationships with his or her students that are conducive to large-scale art production. You will need to know what your students can and cannot realistically achieve. You will need to know how to give directions and constructive criticism to students in front of the entire class in a way that preserves their confidence.

It takes time to nourish a level of trust and familiarity before a mural project can be produced. I recommend planning your curriculum and school year so that a mural project is a culminating event for you, your students, and the school or community. Smaller projects that teach the technical and aesthetic skills your students will need can be done throughout the year. The use of large group critiques, either teacher or students led, will accustom the students to constructive criticism in an open forum and prepare them to be receptive to the open forum of discussing and making murals.

Let me describe for you a moment from a school day when we are actually working on the wall. I have thirty kids working –three on rented scaffolding 16 feet high, two students are climbing and passing needed paint colors and brushes to them. Another fifteen students, scattered across the 65 feet painting surface, are filling in areas with flat color. Five other students who have higher ability levels are following those students putting in more detail. Behind me are at least three students who are slacking—trying to get out of doing anything on the wall today by being extremely quiet.

I am positioned behind the paint cart, loaded with jars of color, containers, and brushes, directing traffic and calling out directions from the left of the wall to the right and then scanning back down the wall to make sure the first directions I gave are being followed. When something is amiss, I check out the problem, reassess, re-teach, and get that section going correctly. I then deal with the two students who came in late and want to work on the thing they were doing yesterday, but now it’s either done or are being worked on by another student. After these negotiations and after everyone is busy with a job, I can spend the last twenty minutes, admiring their work, taking care of attendance, dealing with behavior or participation issues, and discussing plans for the next steps.

Now let’s fast forward. It’s three week later; the mural is almost done. Only a smaller number of students who have been particularly dedicated and who have developed higher skills are putting the all-important finishing touches on the project. If I am doing the mural in the hallway outside of my room, the majority of the students are working in the classroom—starting a new project or using this time to make-up incomplete or incorrect work. If the mural is being created elsewhere in the school, I cart down materials and student projects and create a makeshift classroom right under the mural. The students I can count on for needing little to no instruction at this time are the ones working on the wall.

I have also built a good working relationship with the security guards in our school. This has allowed me to sometimes be in the classroom teaching while some of the students are in the halls painting, being supervised by the security guards.

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The Roles Of Teacher And Artistic Director

For the mural to be a success as a collaborative endeavor, the art teacher must take on the role of community artist, leading the design and execution of the project. The teacher is the most experienced artist on this project. A public project needs a coordinating director.

You will have to make some decisions that will make the final product the best it can be. You will have to limit the numbers of colors the students will want to use. This might entail doing a quick color scheme lesson or review and guiding them in making and sticking to decisions to limit the palette.

You will have to push the students to vary sizes of the elements they are using and maybe even make some unilateral decision on placement of these elements to help with the flow of the composition. Strong direction should happen at the beginning of the project. Students will be reluctant and possibly disappointed to have to subtract or change things in a drawing to which they have invested the biggest part of their creative input. If design and formal parameters are set at the beginning, you will save time on composition development and the students will feel a greater level of participation and success.

Your artistic input should not be viewed as intrusive in a student project such as this. Even the best students will not be able to pull all the elements from 30 to 150 students into a cohesive, well balanced and harmonious design. The mural becomes part of the community and holds a greater importance than a typical individual class project. A mural takes the learning and creating of art out of the classroom and into a more public realm. You as the facilitator of the project have a responsibility to the art education and aesthetic experience of the entire school community.

It’s your responsibility to make sure the work encompasses the unique social and political issues that make up your school’s community. The typical art student does not have the abilities and tools needed to bring these elements of meaning and form together. This is part of the lesson you teach them by taking on the role of an artist director.

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Taking It to The Community

Early on in my teaching career, I realized that to keep things interesting, not only for my students, but also for myself, I needed to find a way to extend arts learning out of the classroom. Public art brings in the students’ experiences and takes their expression out into the school or larger community.

When our murals started gracing the walls and ceilings of the school, I used them as an avenue for soliciting support from community groups who were interested in partnering with Austin Community Academy. I guided visitors to the various sites in the school and talked about the advantages public art held for the community and its youth. These groups included political activists, church groups, and city organizations. People were impressed by the high quality tangible results of the students’ work.

They witnessed the students’ enthusiasm, pride, and excitement. The projects included reading, writing, and research. These were solid, interdisciplinary educational practices that these groups felt were lacking in their community schools. They saw the difference the projects made in the physical appearance of the school and in the attitudes of the students.

After a couple of years of promoting the positive outcomes of public art in the school community, I received a visit from a community leader wanting my students to create a public artwork for a local community garden. She had led the reclamation of a vacant lot that had been used by drug dealers and had transformed it into a garden.

I had done several painted murals at the school and worked on ceramic tile mosaics as an assistant with Chicago Public Art Group. With this project, I wanted to experiment with concrete sculptures, building on the innovative work of CPAG artist Phil Schuster. We decided to make three decorative concrete totems that would symbolically claim the space for positive community purposes.

We raised the funds to create a summer project. Through a city program, we were able to hire 15 students. My creative partner Carolyn Elaine and I met with Ms. Peery and other community residents to discuss what they envisioned for this space. Family, nature, and peace evolved as the themes of our totems.

The finished  “protective” totems were approximately five feet high and were made of cinderblock and fiberglass reinforced concrete. The totems were constructed at Austin High School in pieces and then assembled on site. The totems included castings of the students’ faces along with Ms. Peery’s face representing Mother Nature. We also made a broken ceramic-tile mosaic hopscotch pad and a checkerboard table.

In the process of creating public art with my students, I have been able to develop a deeper understanding of the lives they live. Bringing the projects out into the community, we bridge gaps between school and community and between youths and community leaders. All the participants—artists, neighborhood adults, students, funders—engaged in a positive experience that enriches the community in deep and long lasting ways. As an artist and as a teacher, I am able to participate in the creation of art and the transformation of the community with my students, instead of just helping them solve repetitive visual problems in a classroom.

No matter how bad off a community might seem, there are always opportunities for supporting and funding public art projects that empower and affect the community. Look to churches, alderman, social service agencies, and community leaders for help and guidance. If the public artwork you have begun in the school is done with the goal of representing and including the community, these groups and individuals will often seek you out.

Through the model I have illustrated here, you can bring a deeply meaningful learning experience to your students while creating art that is relevant for everyone involved. Art education is more than classroom projects. It should excite and enrich the lives of all participants—student and teacher.

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