Before the 2017-18 school year, three murals — located on the large wall next to the entrance to the gym, the wall next to the weight room and the wall on the back side of the gym — were painted over.
The decision was made by head of school Lee Thomsen, who said in the Octagon that the murals were “weatherworn” and “did not show the school in the best light” (“Community has mixed reactions to school’s painting over 21-year-old mural,” Aug. 28, 2017).
But just over a year ago, Lea Gorny, ’18, responded by designing a mural depicting two women of color, moons and galaxies for the gym wall behind the physical education office. After getting approval from Thomsen, Gorny and other students spent spring break painting.
That mural sparked many AP Art Studio students to start working on proposals for this year.
In February, Thomsen, art teacher Andy Cunningham, head of high school Brooke Wells and seniors Michaela Chen, Bella Mathisen, Grace Naify, Sophie Naylor, Mohini Rye and Tori Van Vleck met to discuss possible murals for this year.
In that meeting, according to Mathisen, the students received “a lot of positive feedback” from Thomsen regarding painting new murals around campus.
Mathisen, who had been working on her design since the summer, gave a full presentation in the February meeting, during which she even showcased photoshopped images of her mural on the wall. The other students also explained their ideas and showed Thomsen sketches of their proposals.
“(Thomsen) seemed pretty receptive, although a little overwhelmed with how much was given at one time,” Rye said. “But it seemed like a productive meeting and that it was going someplace.”
Around a month later, on March 12, Thomsen met with about a dozen administrators to decide which murals to approve.
“I take advice and feedback from them, but ultimately, I’m responsible (for decision making),” Thomsen said.
Mathisen, Naylor, Rye and Van Vleck each submitted one proposal. Thomsen approved only Mathisen’s idea, though he changed the mural’s location — from the side of Room 9 to the wall next to the weight room.
“We’re just not ready to put a mural in that space,” Thomsen said. “We like the clean look of the courtyard.”
When Thomsen emailed Cunningham to let all the students know which proposals had been approved, according to Naylor, Thomsen didn’t give many reasons why hers and her classmates’ were rejected.
“He didn’t give us a straight answer,” Naylor said. “During the meeting, he told us, ‘I’ll think about it. It seems like a lot of you have strong proposals.’ It seemed like he was on our side, and Mr. Wells too, so we had hope.”
Van Vleck agreed, adding that all the artists were careful with their designs and proposed locations.
“A lot of us tried to pick places that weren’t super visible or big and themes that weren’t at all controversial; pretty much all were somehow about education,” Van Vleck said.
“We tried to make it as hard as possible to say no.”
Cunningham was also surprised that only one of four proposals was approved.
“Last year (Thomsen) said he wanted more artwork around school and actually showed me pictures of another school that had multiple locations on campus with different murals, so I was under the impression that he wanted more,” Cunningham said. “So I figured I’d come with as many people (with proposals) as I could.”
Naify said she was “disappointed but not surprised” that Thomsen approved only one mural.
“I mean at this point, I didn’t expect anyone to get an approval simply because (Thomsen) seems to change his mind every time he goes to discuss the murals with the board,” Naify said.
Thomsen said he just wanted “time to think about it and create some sort of process.”
Mathisen said one of the reasons only her proposal was approved could have been that she had been working on it for so long.
Thomsen confirmed this, saying he approved Mathisen’s because she had been working on her proposal the longest.
For future mural proposals, Thomsen said he hopes to create a more clear-cut process.
“Right now, we’ve been waiting to see if kids come to us or don’t,” he said. “Last year we had one student, one proposal and one mural, but this year, we have four or five proposals and different locations, so we decided to approve one and to take a pause and say, ‘Let’s think forward in terms of having a system. Do we want, as a school, to say we’re going to have three places (for murals) or 10?’ We don’t really know yet, so part of the approval of the one (mural) was to give us some time to let us think forward.”
As an alternative to a mural, Thomsen suggested that students put their designs on large canvases to hang inside various buildings on campus.
“We have several indoor spaces where we would love to feature student art,” he said. “The admissions office has one really huge wall on the east side and a big space on the west side that would be perfect places for larger pieces of art, so I’m hoping that outside of simply murals, we’ll have future pieces of art.”
Mathisen also acknowledged some benefits of canvas paintings rather than murals.
“They stay up longer, and you can take them home,” she said. “(Thomsen) told me they’re going to paint over the murals every couple years, and I think that that’s a reason (against new murals).
“If four people paint this year, and four people want to paint next year, then there will be some problems with overlapping spaces.
“Once you fill up the walls, you fill up the walls.”
However, neither Van Vleck nor Naylor plans to paint her design on a canvas.
Naylor said a canvas painting “defeats the purpose of the whole design I created.”
“I was excited to paint my piece large scale and outdoors, but it wouldn’t have the same effect on a smaller canvas,” she said.
“I wanted to keep my rough draft for inspiration in the future, rather than devote time to a piece that I put a lot of thought and effort into just for it to be another traditional canvas painting.”
Despite the difficulties that come with painting new murals, Cunningham explained their benefits.
“It’s a creative outlet for students who make the work and design the work,” he said.
“But it’s also good for students who aren’t artistic who get to walk by these creations while the students who made them are on campus. And being in the presence of (the murals) — that’s an integral part of the education process.”
While Naylor said she respects Thomsen’s decision, she’s “bummed” she won’t be able to do her mural.
“Especially as a senior, I don’t get to express my artistic influence one last time (at Country Day),” Naylor said.
“It’s just kind of a bummer that with such a malleable system where students are usually able to do what they want, I can’t do (my mural).”
Van Vleck agreed, adding that it’s “disappointing” to see a decline of the arts at Country Day.
“That used to be a very strong aspect of our school,” she said.
“Murals would showcase the diversity of students’ skills, as opposed to being a school just focused on academics.”
Rye also noted how the interests of each graduating class differ.
“We have a huge group of seniors into visual arts, and it’s just unfortunate that there’s going to be only one mural by one artist and that’s the legacy this class leaves,” Rye said.
—By Allison Zhang
Originally published in the April 23 edition of the Octagon.