What do a famous artist from Chicago and fifteen high-school students from West Oakland have in common? It sounds like the setup for an art-world party joke, but the connection is real.
In January, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art commissioned artist Kerry James Marshall to paint a pair of murals in its six-story atrium. In February, the museum commissioned fifteen Oakland teenagers to paint a response mural at Town Park, a community-built skate park within DeFremery Park.
The students attend Oakland High School, Oakland School of the Arts, and Ralph J. Bunche Academy. Some are art students; most are skaters who were already skating at Town Park; some are neither. Museum staffers envisioned the project as a chance for the teens to respond to Kerry Marshall's ideas — he retells American history from the point of view of those African Americans who were anonymous in the textbook versions. The students also were asked to commit to research and painting sessions for thirteen Saturdays. SFMOMA provided supplies, pizza, hamburgers, a $400 stipend, and the opportunity to kick-start the students' résumés with a museum-sponsored project.
While SFMOMA didn't want to release Sonny, Devanio, Lionel, Harold, Ramón, Alvin, Tamara, Sean, Dalena, Tony, Kimani, Jorge, José, Nile, or Jacob's last names out of concern for their privacy, they did let a reporter tag along behind the scenes to watch the project unfold.
First off, the students met with Marshall and saw his paintings. Marshall had painted the indoor murals, "Visible Means of Support: Monticello" and "Visible Means of Support: Mount Vernon," each 32 feet long and a couple flights above viewers' heads, with the help of painters from Precita Eyes, the San Francisco-based mural organization. The paintings show Thomas Jefferson and George Washington standing in front of their respective monuments, their authoritative postures competing with the coloring-book style they're rendered in. Scores of slaves are camouflaged in unfinished dot-to-dot puzzles and paint-by-numbers-type backgrounds. The Founding Fathers are grossly elongated. They only start to look normally proportioned if you stand right underneath them.
"I'm interested in what's left out of the stories," Marshall said later at a press conference. "This is just one visual contribution to the way that historical narratives continue to be revised and revealed and presented." The students were expected to make their own contribution to that canon, to present a view of their world through their own eyes.
To brush up on local history, they met with Steve Lavoie, a librarian at the Oakland Public Library's Oakland History Room. He told them stories about the first transcontinental railroad and how the Black Panthers had met at DeFremery Park in the 1960s. He showed them a photo of a few Black Panther children with serious expressions, dressed in clothes that now look archaically formal. "The themes did not seem to be resonating," SFMOMA Education Associate Aimee Shapiro later recalled. "A lot of the students were lying on the table and acting all bored."
Annie Lawson, SFMOMA's Manager of School, Youth, and Family Programs, agreed. "We really thought it was a crash-and-burn moment," she said. "We were, like, 'This is not working out so well.'"
But when the students started sketching out ideas for the mural, the stories Lavoie had told them were on their front burners. The railroad, the Black Panthers, the fact that parts of Oakland used to be farmland, even the oak trees that had lent the city its name had captured their attention.
Next, the teens visited Emeryville artist Brett Cook, who uses a graffiti style and leads groups of kids and adults in community art projects. Cook gave the students a tour of his studio and brainstormed with them. They were impressed with his ample spray-paint collection, and Cook imparted his theories about how art and everyday life don't necessarily have to be so separate. To him, living your life and being part of a community can involve as much creative expression as making paintings. He explained, "It's not just, 'I'm the best colorer in the class.' It's also, 'How do we make our life the best it can be?'"
This came as good news to a few of the students, who weren't too confident about their drawing skills. They could start sketching their ideas by finding photos online instead of struggling with a new medium. After a couple weeks of sketching, downloading, talking, and thinking, facilitated by Fred Alvarado, a Fruitvale-based Precita Eyes muralist who'd helped paint Kerry Marshall's pieces, the group came up with a draft of their own mural.
On a Saturday morning in February, the thirteen boys and two girls, most wearing skater sneakers and black T-shirts or hoodies, met in a classroom at SFMOMA. Alvarado was running late. As the students waited for him, they watched YouTube, texted their friends, or snapped pictures with cell phones. The atmosphere was casual and polite. Their time didn't seem precious. Alvarado arrived, baseball cap askance, as usual. His tardiness was unusual. (But, to us anyway, understandable. He'd been at an Express-sponsored party the night before.) He was apologetic. The one joke someone cracked was so mild it seemed intended more to let him off the hook than to razz him.
He unrolled a black-and-white mock-up of the mural and hung it on a magnet board. The train, the oak trees, and the Black Panther children, now dressed like skaters and holding a boom box, were all in there, drawn with the passionate contour lines of a high-schooler's sketchbook and the swirly, peace-and-grooviness attitude of retro-Partridge-Family graphics. The students had written "chaos" on the tracks and "hope" in the clouds." (The clouds later became a Mexican flag.)
"Now we need to write a paragraph," Alvarado said. The paragraph would describe the mural and guide the rest of the production process. With ear buds still in ears, they wrote with Crayola markers about Oakland's geography and history, about the idea of working as a community to overcome violence and chaos and replace them with love and peace.
What kinds of violence and chaos are on their minds? Other than mentioning that it's become hard to choose what color to wear because every color is associated with a gang, no one was saying. Alvarado reported that even though he got to know the students pretty well, there were a lot of topics they didn't discuss outside their own peer group. But in December, a former high-school teacher known as K-Dub (Keith Williams), who was responsible for getting Town Park built, told community news site East Bay West Online, "From teaching here I know at least six students who are no longer here because of a bullet, and I'm sure none of them warranted it."
In the same conversation, K-Dub said, "Everybody seems like they are afraid of these kids, instead of talking to them."
Cook had suggested that we might all have something to learn by trying to communicate across the boundaries implied by our own demographics. Marshall has won popular and academic acclaim and awarded a MacArthur genius grant for doing just that. Essentially, the mural project was the students' chance to have a go at communicating across those boundaries.
You might expect that with the mike in their hands and a museum-going audience to listen, the teens would want to jump up and shout about who they really are or rail against the inequities of a world where their peers could be caught in gunfire. Actually, the mural reads more like a cheery scrapbook collection or a visual time capsule of what the students discovered about their corner of the world. It matches the statements they wrote at the museum about hope being their main priority.
The students transferred their picture to eight-foot-high plywood panels, which would be bolted to a concrete wall. Alvarado, a patient, low-key leader, left the decision making and execution to his charges but held them to a professional standard. He interjected with technical advice ("We can't use fluorescents in a mural; they're not lightfast") and friendly admonishments ("Do it right"; "Don't take shortcuts"; "We problem-solve right here; then it's going to cause less problems later"). He pointed out that the mural will be there in the park representing them for a long time.
"These kids are pretty on point," he said. "They understand it's a pretty special project; not every kid is going to get to work with the museum. They're all motivated people. They're going to come out with a great accomplishment to give to the neighborhood and the skate park."
Shapiro said she was impressed with the teens' passion and commitment. She reported that on several occasions, they voluntarily extended the required four-hour shift to six. Some skipped family events (a wedding; the birth of new cousin) or football games they were scheduled to play in so they could stay and work. Some had forgotten about the $400 stipend they'd receive, and a few parents told Shapiro their kids, who continued to play it relatively cool around their artistic mentors, were full-on excited about the whole thing.
Over the next few Saturdays, the students painted in the park. Strangers dropped by on sunny days to admire their progress, and tweens checked out the mural as they sailed up and down skateboard ramps and jumped their BMX bikes in Town Park.
In mid-May, they finished the painting and titled it "Change, Family, Roots & Culture." Kerry Marshall came back to town to celebrate its unveiling and congratulate the young artists on adding their own visual narrative Oakland's historical record.