PICASSO PAINTED OVER: School paints over three longtime student-created murals before year begins

(Photo used by permission of Lee Thomsen)
The big “Exquisite Corpse” mural was painted by Jessica (Kreig) Henderson, ’96, Schuyler Ellers, ’96, and Sunny Seegmiller, ’97.

Lines of blue Scotch tape that read “ART?” and “MURAL?” were pasted on the blank, beige gym walls on Sept. 6.

It was a message – a message from the AP Studio Art class to the school that new murals should replace those that had been painted over.

“It was a peaceful protest to get people to think about a new mural,” AP art student Michaela Chen said. 

However, within minutes the tape was taken down in preparation for Back-to-School night, according to head of school Lee Thomsen.

But Thomsen said that he wasn’t angry about the protest.

“I love that our students care about things and would do something that is non-destructive,” he said.

“It tells me a lot about our kids – about how much they understand and respect the value of our campus and want to make a statement.”

But what caused the protest in the first place? 

On the night of Aug. 26 and the morning of Aug. 27, three student-created murals on the gym’s outdoor walls were painted over by the custodial staff at the direction of Thomsen.

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.”

But he said he now wishes he had had more information before making the decision.

“I felt like while I asked a number of people to help me understand the history of the murals, I clearly didn’t ask a wide enough poll of people,” Thomsen said. 

“I keep learning more in the aftermath of the decision.”

The most visible mural was located on the large wall next to the entrance to the gym. 

That mural, painted by Jessica (Kreig) Henderson, ’96, Schuyler Ellers, ’96, and Sunny Seegmiller, ’97, in May 1996, was filled with vivid green vines and facial features (such as a gray pair of eyes and a bright, cherry-colored mouth) and included “BCDE” in gray serifed letters. Henderson and Ellers painted the left side of the mural while Seegmiller painted the right.

(Photo used by permission of Lee Thomsen)
The painting of the mural “Homage to Picasso,” which used to be adjacent to the weight- room door, was organized by Chris Dale, ’92.

The second mural was on the wall next to the weight room and was organized and spearheaded by Chris Dale, ’92, in 1992. That mural portrayed over 20 different Pablo Picasso works blended together and was based on the school’s very first chalk mural, titled “Homage to Picasso.”

The third was on the back side of the gym, facing the middle-school buildings. Lenora Yerkes, ’99, painted this mural as part of her senior project in 1999. The mural contained many images, including a parrot, a fish and a man in a birdbath.

The school did take pictures of all three murals before painting them over and sent them to the artists. 

And those artists have varying opinions about the decision to paint over their work. 

“I was mostly surprised to receive an email from (Thomsen) last week regarding the murals’ removal – and a little sad,” Henderson said.

“It was exhilarating for Schuyler and (me) to be allowed to paint on the gym wall (in) our senior year.”

Henderson also spoke about how valuable the mural painting experience was to her life.

“To represent our artistic misfit selves in plain view of the whole school and have our fellow students watch our progress in excitement was an affirming experience,” she said.

“Schuyler and I chose pretty unique careers (compared to) most students, and I’m sure the encouragement we received from the school to explore our artistic talents helped shape our paths.”

Henderson is now a professional artist, and Ellers is a fashion designer. 

Like Henderson, Ellers said he was surprised to learn that his mural had been painted over.

“Nobody called me or informed me,” he said.

“It seems they took down the mural very one-sidedly, without talking to anyone, especially me.

“Why does (the head) get to decide what is best for the school?”

Ellers said he is upset his mural is gone because of its message.

“It is kind of sad because that mural was from a time when Country Day was probably a very different place,” he said.

“There was a lot of creativity at the time, and the school let students paint murals on its buildings. “

However, Ellers also said he was shocked that his mural had remained up for so long.

“In a way, it had a great run!” he said. 

(Photo used by permission of Lee Thomsen)
A portion of the big mural had the letters “BCDE” on it.

Yerkes, on the other hand, said she didn’t particularly care for her mural because of its placement on the wall next to the P.E. office door.

“It would be remarkable to me if anyone had enjoyed that mural ever,” Yerkes said.

Nevertheless, Yerkes said that she was “really happy to have the opportunity to paint on a building.”

“I found the experience very valuable, and just because I didn’t really prefer the final outcome doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a super-valuable educational experience,” she said.

“It was part of the excellent education I had at SCDS, and I would imagine that making this experience available to other students would be in the school’s best interest.”

Since painting her mural in 1999, Yerkes, also a professional artist, has not had another chance to paint a mural.

“That was a special opportunity,” she said. 

Artist Maya (previously Kay) Schweizer was the high school art teacher during the painting of all three murals and said she was sorry they were gone.

“The murals were all challenging and time-consuming efforts by student artists, whose goal was to enrich the visual environment and cultural life of the SCDS community,” she said.

“The gym murals weren’t designed as a logo or (a) mascot on a grand scale but as art,” Schweizer said.

“And, as you know, Sacramento is a city of murals.”

Schweizer also expanded on the reasons for painting the murals.  

“This concept of bringing art into the school as a part of daily life was one of the missions of the National Art Honor Society,” she said. 

“NAHS members and art faculty believed the murals added to the cultural life of the school. This is especially pertinent at SCDS because the school was started by two families, the Geetings and Matthewses, who believed that the arts and academics were equally important in education.”

(Photo used by permission of Lee Thomsen)
The portion of the large mural painted by Sunny Seegmiller, 97.

In a Sept. 5 poll of 117 high school students, 30 percent of the students disagreed with the decision to paint over the murals while 23.9 percent strongly disagreed. 

Only 3.4 percent of the students agreed with the decision, and 1.7 percent strongly agreed. The majority of students, 41 percent, said they had no opinion on the murals being painted over.

Junior Nate Jakobs was one of two students who strongly agreed with Thomsen’s decision.

“I didn’t think it was a very good look for the school,” Jakobs said.

“The mural wasn’t very appealing to look at.”

However, in an online poll that accompanied the Aug. 28 story and received 125 votes, 87 percent of alumni, parents, students and faculty disagreed with the decision while only 11 percent agreed. (Two percent of voters did not know there had been a mural.).

Michael Covey, garden coordinator and former chemistry teacher, said he felt “extreme disappointment” when he saw that the mural on the back of the gym was gone.

“To see the mural greet me as I came in (to work in the garden) was a great way to start the morning,” he said.

Art teacher Andy Cunningham said he didn’t mind that they were painted over but wished that Thomsen had talked to the community before doing so.

“It would have been nice to have some form of discussion prior to (the murals) disappearing overnight,” Cunningham said.

The student body largely agreed with Cunningham. In the Sept. 5 poll, 81 percent said the administration should have asked the community before painting over the murals.

History teacher Sue Nellis said she thinks that the school skipped over “a certain process” before the repainting.

“The problem is not what happened, because a consensus may have come about to change the murals (or) maybe (to) put some new ones in,” Nellis said.

“It was the process that really should have happened that didn’t happen.”

Nellis added that she doesn’t have a problem with change as long as there is communication with the whole campus.

(Photo used by permission of Lee Thomsen)
A portion of the mural that was near the bike racks and P.E. office, painted by Lenora Yerkes, ’99.

In response to Thomsen’s statement, Covey said that he hadn’t noticed any signs of deterioration on the mural on the back wall of the gym.

And he also disagreed with the way the murals portrayed the school.

“In some ways (they) did show the school in its best light,” Covey said.

“(They) honored the creativity of its students.”

Covey added that the school should have absolutely asked the school community before painting over the murals.

“I was very surprised that that did not happen,” Covey said.

“I thought that by allowing the students to create the murals, (the school) showed a sense of pride in the students’ art – an appropriate pride,” Covey said.

“Taking it down or painting over it removes that element of pride.”

Kelly Neukom, ‘04, was also very sad to hear the murals had been painted over and said so on her Facebook page.

“I was disappointed because the murals (have) been there ever since I can remember,” Neukom said.

“It was a mainstay for my childhood and my time at Country Day.”

Neukom was also sorry for the people who had painted the murals because she had known them.

She added that she was disappointed with the school for not discussing the decision with the community. 

“I feel like the murals were an important part of the Country Day lore.

“And even if (Thomsen) is sorry about it, there is no way to bring the murals back.”

Some are now pondering the idea of a new mural.

“I’ve thought about (putting something up in its place),” Cunningham said, “since now (the walls) feel blank.”

One of Cunningham’s ideas was an annual paint-over party. That way students could create something new every year. 

But Cunningham said he is also worried about the potential workload.

“I’ve never really taken anything on like that,” Cunningham said.

“It would be a fun new project, but it would also take time, energy, student power and assistance from the administration.

“The mural would be much more of a public image than a drawing in the art room.”

Ellers acknowledged the age of the murals but offered a possible solution that did not involve painting them over.

“If they looked weatherworn, what a great art project to restore them!” he said.

“Restoration is something that maybe a lot of people are interested in.”

Ellers, like Cunningham, suggested a new mural project, where students would paint new murals annually and then the next class could paint over the previous mural and create a new one.

Seegmiller was also an advocate for a new mural.

“New murals need to be put up because there are new students that need to express themselves too,” she said. 

Senior artist Lea Gorny said she would love the option to replace the mural.

“It’s a great idea for the art department and a good way to get everyone together to do something,” she said.

Nellis said she was excited as well about the possibility.

“I would like to see something up there,” Nellis said.

“(The mural) was a great expression of the artistic ability of Country Day students.”

(Photo used by permission of Lee Thomsen)
A close-up of one of the Picasso-inspired faces that was on the mural organized by Dale, next to the weight room.

However, high school students were not unanimous in their opinion on a new mural.

Of those polled on Sept. 5, 74.8 percent said that they thought a new mural should be put up on the gym walls, while 25.2 percent disagreed.

Thomsen said he is open to the idea of a new mural.

“If there are students who are interested in making a proposal, I would welcome it,” he said.

“We would consider their proposal within the administrative team while thinking about the campus and the look we want.”

Thomsen also said that the school needs to discuss as a community whether to put up a new mural or replace it with signage like, “Go, Cavaliers.”

But Neukom doesn’t think signage is a good idea.

“I hope that it’s not anything cliché,” she said.“It should be something original and as inspired as the old mural was.

“Sports slogans are not original, and one of (Country Day’s) main selling points is that we are unique.”

—By Jack Christian

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