Mural lessons

On a perfect June morning, parents and the children of Spruance Elementary School in Northeast Philadelphia gathered in the school yard to dedicate an exuberant mural created by artist Eliseo Silva with their help (top, Silva’s “Coming to America, Making it Better,” with real-life ribbon slicing across, awaiting the ceremonial cutting). The mural is one of 20 created this year, the first part of a five-year joint project of the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and the School District of Philadelphia. At Spruance, the students and some parents and the faculty worked on the mural during school and after school, according to Rochelle Jacobs, one of the teachers who participated in the school’s mural committee.One of the first families to arrive for the festivities were the Luroes, there because Brittany Luroe, who is 14 and in 8th grade, designed one of the 100 stars students created for the mural. She was also one of the stars of the day, scheduled to sing a solo during the ceremonies. So what do you think of the mural, Brittany? “It’s beautiful,” she said. “…all vibrant and everything.”

There’s plenty to like in this mural, which has jerseys from Donovan McNabb and Alan Iverson as well as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a hand covered with henna patterns, a Muslim-looking girl in a kerchief, African masks and carved figures, a woman in a samba costume, a Chinese dragon, a yin and yang, and lots lots more.

Then the students started arriving, most of them sitting on the tarmac in front of the mural, creating a sea of red. The school principal, Betty Klear, began. “We have a visual reminder for years to come of our diversity, of all we’ve done.”.

Then Assistant Principal Frank Dunn led the pledge of allegiance.

He asked, “How many people in the audience were born someplace else than America?” A large number of hands shot up from the crowd dressed in their uniform red shirts. When he asked how many had parents who were born elsewhere, it seemed like nearly everyone raised their hands (left). He told the children about his first experience coming to school and not speaking English, and spoke of the worth of each child and “the potential you have to make it better.”

The name of the mural is “Coming to America, Making it Better.”

Luroe and several other students sang spirited solos of “We are the World,” quickly recovering their composure when the microphone failed them. Then all the children who were gathered in front of the mural joined in the chorus, led by a smiling Leah Hopkins, while parents beamed and wiped away a tear or two (image, the soloists, including Luroe, fourth from the right, and Hopkins in green dress in front).

Dr. Alisha Greenberg, an art teacher at the school, spoke of how the different cultures in the school make life interesting, and that the mural would serve as a daily reminder of that diversity. She spoke of how the children researched their ancestry, and announced certificates for children who participated by contributing stars or painting.

After another art teacher spoke, the man-of-the-day addressed the crowd.

“Raise your hand if you want to be an artist someday,” Silva said. A large troupe of the youngest students stretched their arms to the sky.

Describing his experience with the students he said, “The first day, I knew I was in a room full of geniuses. I knew I had more to learn from them than they could [learn from] me.”

He said the mural was made with 100 gallons of paint and 100 parachute cloths covering 2,400 square feet of wall (left, Silva before the ceremony began).

Silva was delighted by his experience at Spruance. “It was my first opportunity to shape the future” by teaching children. He said the mural showed the spirit, the energy and the force of art, and that the children were the inspiration for the mural.

Two French-speaking children from the ESL (English as a Second Language) program, one from Benin and one from Haiti, recited a poem, “I too” by Langston Hughes.

A group of school dignitaries, including the artist, then cut the ribbon (right, the ribbon cutting).

Then Deborah Zuchman, the project coordinator for the collaboration between the School District and the Mural Arts Program, talked about how the children learned the process of making art–facing the blank wall, coming up with the ideas that would go into the work, and then making decisions. The students also kept a sketchbook journal for the project, and one of those sketchbooks won an award.

A neighborhood Wawa donated refreshments for after the ceremony.

But first students, faculty and others came up to congratulate and thank Silva for his splendid work. He looked grand dressed up in his traditional Phillipine embroidered shirt, just the right touch for a mural about diversity and immigration and moving to a better life.

He said this was his eighth mural in Philadelphia, and he has done 44 murals in places stretching from California and Seattle to Maine. He was excited to have had the chance to be inside a classroom as part of the regular teaching program. He said it made a big difference in both his experience and the experience of the children working with him.

Then he talked a little about the mural. The space in it stretches from the broken chains at the foot of the Statue of Liberty across the oceans, where two parents enter the New World, a sort of magical realism and surrealism powering the imagery in the painting. All of the earth-bound events take place on the back of an eagle, hard to pick out at first, but then unmistakable.

The second theme involves dismantling a World War II bomber to create a better, peaceful life. Propellers become energy windmills and also propel through the sky a flying dog with a man on his back. The skin of the plane becomes the rowhouse rooftops.

Silva said he thought it was interesting and wonderful that the students, so many of whom are Asian, overwhelmingly selected Rosa Parks as the perfect American. He took that as a sign of social progress toward equality for all.

The ceremony could have taken place in any American public school anywhere in the country. And the children looked beautiful and full of life and pride–perfect Americans.


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