AP Studio teacher brings in professional artist to scout potential mural locations
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UPDATE: A new mural designed by senior Lea Gorny was approved on March 6 by head of school Lee Thomsen. The mural will be painted on the wall behind the gym next to the PE offices. Check back for more details.
“Where’s all the color?” Sacramento muralist Franceska Gamez asked while walking the high school grounds with the AP Studio Art students on Jan. 12.
“There is something very therapeutic to the aspect of color,” she said.
Gamez is not the only one who has noticed that the Country Day campus lacks color and vibrancy.
The AP Studio Art students, led by senior Lea Gorny, are currently in the process of proposing multiple new murals to the administration for approval.
These mural proposals are in direct response to head of school Lee Thomsen’s unilateral decision to paint over three student murals in August of last year.
To help with this process, AP Studio Art teacher Andy Cunningham brought in Gamez to give the students advice, as Cunningham said he has never done anything like this before.
“My role is simply as a conduit for communication and to provide access to people, like Franceska, (who are) able to come in and help ease the nerves of a budding muralist,” Cunningham said.
During Gamez’s visit, the AP Studio Art students and head of high school Brooke Wells toured the campus to discuss potential mural locations.
One location they discussed was the wall behind the physical education office, where the mural by Lenora Yerkes, ’99, was painted over.
Gamez said she liked this location because of the verticality of the wall and because the mural could be viewed by both middle and high school students.
“The only problem would be painting the mural,” Gamez said.
“You would either have to use a lift or build scaffolding to be able to reach all parts of the wall.”
The original mural reached only halfway up the wall. Gamez said that a lift can hold up to two or three people.
The group decided that a lift would be better, as scaffolding would block a full view of the mural as it was being worked on.
Gamez suggested that students also use a projector to project an image of the mural at night on the wall, allowing the artists to easily trace an outline of the mural.
A second location the group looked at was the wall of the Frank Science Center facing the middle school portables.
Gamez liked this location since the potential painting area is shoulder height and has easy access.
“What’s rad about this location is you could have your entire class working on the mural at once,” Gamez said.
However, she was worried about the “wall’s rough stucco texture” as thick rollers would need to be used.
Gorny, though, said she did not like this location as she was worried that there was not enough foot traffic for a mural to get the appreciation it deserves.
Gamez also suggested using spray paint instead of traditional paints.
Cunningham liked this idea but noted that none of his students have experience with spray paint. Gamez was quick to offer to teach the class how to use it.
The group then moved on to the high school quad, where they discussed many additional locations.
Nobody in the group was excited about the wall on the side of Rm. 3 (English teacher Patricia Fels’s room) that faces Rm. 4 (history teacher Sue Nellis’s room) or the wall on the side of Rm. 8 (Latin teacher Jane Batarseh’s room) facing the lockers because murals in these locations would not be seen by many people.
However, the students said they liked the idea of painting multiple small murals on the panels between the windows of the high school building (comprised of Rms. 4-8) as many students would be able to create their own designs.
The final wall of the walkthrough was by far everyone’s favorite.
This is the wall located on the back side of the high school office facing the parking lot.
This wall would allow multiple people to work on a very large mural at one time. The mural would also be visible at all times of the day to both students and parents.
The only problem is, again, the texture.
“I’m skeptical because of the paneling,” junior AP Studio Art student Sophie Naylor said.
“But if we could cover it up with plywood, I think this wall is the best option.”
Many of the students said this meeting and walkthrough with Gamez was a step in the right direction toward a new mural. However, some still expressed concern with the administration.
“There is no valid argument against not having a mural,” Naylor said.
“It is restrictive to prevent people from expressing themselves through art.”
Some students, like Naylor, are worried that Thomsen doesn’t want another student mural after he ordered three of them removed in August.
“After we came back, and the murals were painted over, the whole class was upset,” Gorny said.
“We started to think that we should get the opportunity to create one now too.”
Junior AP Studio Art student Tori Van Vleck added that she doesn’t “understand why color and vibrancy aren’t inviting.”
“People at this school celebrate being different, so I don’t know why we can’t display that,” she said.
Thomsen said in an Octagon article (“Community has mixed reactions to school’s painting over 21-year-old mural,” Aug. 28) that the murals were painted over because they were weatherworn and “did not show the school in the best light.”
The students also expressed concerns that the new mural was going to be limited to a small, less public location.
When Gorny attended a meeting with Thomsen in December, she said that he gave her the idea that the wall next to the gym entrance was not an option anymore.
“He made it seem like we would really have to reach to convince the administration that we could have a mural there,” she said.
“The administration believes that the bigger wall is too public, so a mural there would make certain families feel like their child couldn’t fit in here because of their child’s lack of artistic ability.”
Thomsen, on the other hand, said that he was open to a mural in any location, but the administration needs to see and discuss potential ideas first.
“My feeling is we are trying to show our physical campus in the best possible light,” Thomsen said.
“And I currently like the clean look of the gym wall.”
However, Gorny sees those walls as “blank and empty.”
“The community could be much more open and vibrant with a large, colorful mural,” she said.
“A pop of color could also make people feel more open toward our art program.”
Gamez also disagreed with Thomsen’s point of view.
“Shying away from that wall prohibits so much growth and acceptance for the arts,” Gamez said.
“Being young and having inspiration, the more color and space you have, the more you can spark creativity.”
Van Vleck agreed with Gamez.
“I don’t think people should be afraid of what we are going to do,” Van Vleck said.
“We are not going to put up anything that will be offensive.”
Gamez added that it is important as an educational establishment to highlight diversity, especially in the arts.
Gorny agreed, but said there is a lack of diversity in terms of art at Country Day.
Gorny said that the arts don’t get the same funding, support or attention as sports in the high school.
“Something they push in lower school is art, but in high school, they mainly push sports,” she said.
Gamez added that because the administration is not full of artists, the students need to break down their ideas and proposals for them.
To help with this problem, Gamez suggested to the students that they photoshop the possible mural designs on the prospective walls to allow the administration to get a feel for the mural.
Gamez also talked about the impact painting a mural can have on individual students and the community.
“We all know people have different ways of learning,” Gamez said.
“Some people learn visually, others learn audibly and some learn physically.
“It is the responsibility of the school to allow their students to learn in whatever way fits them best.”
Cunningham said that allowing students to paint a mural shows that their artistic skills are valued.
“It allows the student to leave a mark on the school, and even the school to leave a mark on the student,” he said.
“I think it also helps other students to watch it happen.
“Painting a mural is such a big and slow process that it allows students to see the creativity happen in bits as they visit it and revisit it.”
Cunningham’s original idea was not simply to paint one mural. The AP Studio Art students aspire to paint multiple murals throughout the campus.
But these murals will not last forever. To allow many students to reap the benefits of creating a mural, Cunningham proposed that every year one of the existing murals would be painted over and a new one put up in its place.
This concept would allow a multitude of high school students to experience creating and painting a mural.
However, this concept is not revolutionary.
Henry W. Grady High School in Atlanta, Georgia, has allowed its art students to paint murals on the school’s courtyard walls every year since 2004.
According to an article in the Southern (“Student civic walls enhance school character,” Dec. 18), Grady High School’s student newspaper, this mural idea began when Grady’s art teacher John Brandhorst became concerned with the blank look of the school.
“It was one more blank concrete wall in the midst of a very beige school,” Brandhorst said.
And now the Southern reports that the murals have had a positive impact on both the school community and the individual artists.
“Seeing people actually making the murals makes me appreciate the art more,” Grady sophomore Nadia McGlynn said.
“I get to see the work that went into it and how long it took. It also reminds me that this is a creative school. It boosts my school spirit.”
The article also states that due to the murals’ public location and large sizes, student artists feel more connected to them than to smaller paintings created in art class.
“Students express appreciation for the murals by using them as background for Instagram photos,” Grady reporters Alex Opsahl and Ellie Werthman wrote in the article.
“They sometimes pause as they walk between classes to survey the murals and ponder their meanings.”
Grady High muralist Zoe White said, “In the classroom, it’s a lot of being told what to do. You have a set goal of what you want to make. On the wall, your mind goes anywhere and you can do whatever you want. I never thought could do a big mural. Painting the mural shows me that if you know what you intend to do and do it step-by-step, you can accomplish anything.”
These are the types of things that the art students said they’re trying to bring to the SCDS campus.
Gorny said she wants to develop simple murals with a strong message that many in the community can relate to.
“I also really like figures,” Gorny said. “I want to involve them as well because they speak to the viewer in a very powerful way.”
Once the students have finalized their designs, a number of administrators will review their ideas and locations, Thomsen said.
Many in the school community are happily awaiting more school art.
“I can understand certain areas being clean and looking more professional,” Nellis said.
“But for a school, especially a school that values art, we should have our art on display.
“New murals would be quite welcome.”
—By Jack Christian