Whittier Elementary Mural project: Part One

Over the past several years, Assistant Professor Hector Casanova and KCAI Illustration juniors have been partnering with the Kansas City Public School District to add large scale murals to several area schools. The first mural they created, for Scarritt Elementary, added a spark of life, beauty and positivity to this closed, blighted school. Although there has been some tagging since the murals were installed, the bulk of the murals remain intact. Since that project, Hector and the juniors have moved onto a project with Whittier Elementary. We caught up with Hector recently for a bit of an update on that project and how this kind of collaborative work finds its way into the curriculum.

Do you have any new mural sites in mind for after Whittier Elementary school is complete?

We expect to finish the Whittier Elementary mural this Fall. After that is finished, we hope to continue working with the Kansas City Public School District. There are other schools that the school district has put forth for consideration: R.J. Delano School on Linwood Boulevard, Primitivo Garcia on the West Side, and Northeast High School. Once we finish Whittier, we'll determine which one of these (or any other candidates that come up) will be the best fit for us. 

 KCAI Illustration junior Eli Harris talking to the kids at Whittier about his teams' mural

KCAI Illustration junior Eli Harris talking to the kids at Whittier about his teams' mural

Has anybody contacted you about having the students provide a mural for their business?

Yes, a few times. I have passed on these possibilities to students who have expressed interest, and some of them have panned out into paying gigs. Some have fizzled out, when the budget or timeline was not a good fit for artist and client. 

How did you come to the decision of the color palette used throughout the mural?

Keeping the color palette limited is crucial to keep everything looking cohesive, especially when there are so many artists with diverse styles working on a project. Finalizing the color palette for this project was challenging, as the school principal at Whittier wanted the murals to reflect the school's cultural diversity, and each section represents a different nationality. I narrowed down the palette to 4 colors total (plus black and white). Each section only uses three colors, which reflect that section's cultural heritage or colors common in the flags from those regions: the Africa section used red, gold and green (the Pan-African color palette), Asia used red, gold, and blue, Latin America was red, green and gold, North America was red, white and blue, etc... This helped all sections remain visually integrated to the adjacent sections. 

 Team Wildcat working on their section of the Whittier Mural

Team Wildcat working on their section of the Whittier Mural

What makes murals so important? Why is this a project that you integrate in the junior year curriculum?

So much of the work that we make as illustrators is viewed by the public, but its presence is fleeting: magazine covers, websites, posters: they're in the public eye for a few moments, but have a relatively short shelf life. That's the nature of working within popular culture. Murals are one way in which illustrators can tangibly shape the world around them in a lasting way: the can help give a community a sense of identity, become a visual landmark, infuse color and energy into a blighted neighborhood, stimulate conversation and bring art to people who may never have set foot in an art gallery or museum... It's the most democratic art form there is: once a mural is painted, it cannot be bought or sold; it belongs to the people who live in the community. As far as why it is in the curriculum, there are two big reasons: I think it is important for art students to understand and embrace their power to shape the world in very tangible ways through their art, affecting positive change and literally making their mark on a community... and also, to push them to tackle a project much much bigger than they would've likely tackled on their own... We tend to underestimate ourselves, and sometimes diving into the deep end will show us that we are capable of much more than we may have realized. All it takes is courage and focus to break a big project down into smaller chunks.

 Team Wildcat's completed mural section

Team Wildcat's completed mural section

 Team Dragonfruit's completed mural section

Team Dragonfruit's completed mural section

How do you want to impact the community and KCAI through the mural projects?

The two mural projects we have done are both on public school buildings: Scarritt Elementary and Whittier Elementary. Both schools are in the urban core. At its most basic level, the impetus for both projects was to serve as deterrent to graffiti tags. Cities all around the world have discovered that one of the most effective ways to prevent tagging is through murals. Taggers tend to prefer blank walls; if a wall has art that they an appreciate, they usually move on in search of another target. But the graffiti deterrence is just one aspect. Walls covered with graffiti tags are be an eye sore to residents and can make a neighborhood feel unsafe, and murals help ameliorate that problem. But another, more subtle effect can have even bigger repercussions: the infusion of art into a neglected neighborhood can help boost morale for the community, foster a sense of civic pride in neighbors, and even stimulate the local economy: The streets feel safer, the murals attract onlookers, and with increased pedestrians activity, local businesses thrive... over time, murals can help an economically depressed neighborhood rebound and potentially become a tourist destination, as has happened in San Francisco, Philadelphia and Richmond, Virginia. 

As far as impacting KCAI... this project is an opportunity for us as an institution to use our talents and abilities to make Kansas City into a better, safer, more vibrant and more beautiful city. Increasing our presence, visibility and impact in the community helps us not only be better neighbors, but allows us to give back to the city that has been a haven for artists for so many years. 

 A mother and daughter out for a walk in their neighborhood stop by the mural

A mother and daughter out for a walk in their neighborhood stop by the mural

When did you first get the idea to assign the mural project? Were there challenges in getting the project started?

I wanted to do some sort of large scale public art project with students as soon as I started teaching full time. For the reasons that I mentioned, I think that tackling a huge ambitious project, and using your artwork to make the world a better place are both very important things to do as an art student. I had done a few community beautification projects before, but teaching opened doors to tackle much bigger projects. As a teacher, I have an army of talented artists, and together we can do so much more than any one artist could ever do alone. 

There were many challenges getting a project off the ground: my first year, I sent out dozens of emails and made tons of phone calls to anyone who I thought may be interested in a community beautification project. Various branches of city government, grassroots organizations, neighborhood associations, etc. There were a lot of dead ends, and some false starts that fizzled out halfway through. For a long time, things didn't look very hopeful... Not giving up was the hardest part, and every few weeks I would send out a new batch of emails to get the word out. Eventually, Dr. Luis Cordoba at the KC Public School District heard of my wish to start a mural project, and called me in for a meeting. And the rest is history.

 KCAI juniors touching up the mural after installation

KCAI juniors touching up the mural after installation

BIG thanks to Hector for taking time out of his busy schedule to chat with us! We're looking forward to the next round of murals, which will be happening this fall.