BY ELI FRANK AND MAEVE MCKAIG—
After it was agreed that a mural in the arts and science building would be replaced with a new long-term mural, five students, four of whom are in AP art, put up a temporary mural, which was ordered to be painted over by Dr. Bryan Davis, superintendent, after a conversation with Tim Kenney, principal. The temporary mural, which was only intended to be up for a few weeks, was put up the evening of Thursday, May 27, after school had been let out for the long weekend, and was down before Tuesday morning, when school resumed.
The temporary mural was created by Clarence Corbett, Olivia Loomis and Jordan Terry, seniors, and Max Janairo and Chris Zak, juniors, per the students’ choice in Jessie Mohagen’s AP art class for an assignment to experiment with 4D installation art and tackled issues of race and segregation in Shorewood and at the high school.
The words “Shorewood is progressive” sat at the top, followed by five quotes attributed to current black students and black alumni on their thoughts on the state of race relations in Shorewood: “You’ve got to live in Shorewood to be a part of it.” “We have to welcome ourselves.” “I won’t go through Shorewood at night. I don’t want it to be me that night.” “Here they’ll find a reason to pull me over.” “They were quick to give up on the Chapter 220 children.
“I think a lot of the time with segregation, especially when it’s talked about in Milwaukee, it’s easy to … hear the statistics and be shocked as opposed to addressing a problem where you are,” Corbett said. “At the top of the mural it said, ‘Shorewood is progressive,’ which is something we assume a lot of the time, so we wanted to convey the message that that doesn’t mean there aren’t any issues here.”
The students spoke with Solana Patterson-Ramos, youth and programs organizer at the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, before creating the mural. Patterson-Ramos comes into New Horizons, the SHS charter school, once a week to discuss social justice issues with students.
“Since the group that was doing it was majority white students or light-skinned students, they … needed to have more information so they wouldn’t mess up on it,” Patterson-Ramos said. “They had a sit-down with me and [Renee Glembin’s, New Horizons teacher], class about racism in Shorewood and racism in general as oppression and segregation.”
After that initial meeting, the students went into different classrooms and interviewed black students and alumni. According to Zak, they interviewed eight or nine current students and have over two hours of interview material.
“To avoid putting in our own input … We wanted to say this is what people who are affected by racism directly feel about it,” Corbett said.
The administration learned about the mural’s final appearance two days after its creation.
“I became aware of it on Saturday … and my reaction to the product was some concerns around that being in a place where visitors to the building would view it and what their reaction would be without having the context of what the project is,” Davis said.
According to Davis, he received a phone call on Saturday from a visitor in the building for a swim meet.
“[They were concerned about] what was on the mural, and concerned that would be symbolic of Shorewood; that that would be the message Shorewood is sending,” Davis said.
After receiving the phone call from the visitor, Davis contacted Kenney and decided to paint over it.
“I had contacted [Kenney] to see if he know of the mural to try and get some background on the mural, and he said he was aware of the mural but didn’t know what the final product was going to look like,” Davis said. “In talking with Principal Kenney, I decided to … paint over the mural.”
Neither the student artists nor Mohagen discussed the mural’s removal with any members of the administration. However, Mohagen was notified by Kenney in an email, as she was out of town with no cell service, and Jeff Zimpel, art department chair, was notified by a call from Kenney.
“I … didn’t know [it was covered] until Tuesday … I was walking my dog at about 10:00 A.M. and got a text … saying the mural had been covered. I was really surprised so I biked to school just to look at it,” Corbett said.
Davis acknowledges he made a mistake and reacted too quickly.
“That was my mistake, not waiting until Tuesday to have a conversation about the project … I should have talked to the students and the teacher and waited until Tuesday, and I didn’t do that and apologized to the students and the teacher today for those actions,” Davis said.
“I’m extremely proud of my students for doing diligent research and taking a stance,” Mohagen said.
“I understand why the mural was painted over … I think it was important that the students took their opportunity to say what they needed to say [but] I totally understand why it was taken down,” Zimpel said.
There has also been some debate over what the terms of the agreement between the administration, Mohagen and the AP art students actually were.
“My understanding was the mural would be positive. Moreover, my expectations for my students were that they work hard, be creative, research and create something bigger than themselves,” Mohagen said.
“When [Mohagen] asked for permission to use the wall, it was agreed upon, but sort of in passing; it wasn’t … a formal, this is what they’re doing, here are some sketches of it,” Corbett said. “It seemed like there was miscommunication with that, which wasn’t the teacher’s fault … It just happens when there are that many levels of communication … The administration that agreed to let us do the mural were under the assumption that it would be a positive mural. That message wasn’t relayed to us; we never agreed to do a positive mural … Our goal … was to just convey the truth, and that’s what we did. We conveyed people’s actual opinions.”
Kenney could not be reached for comment and referred us to Davis, who could not comment on the terms of the agreement between the students working on the mural and the administration, saying it was a building-level issue.
While Corbett was originally upset with the decision to have it painted over, he believes it helped get word of the project out there.
“At this point, I’ve realized that [the decision to cover it] was actually one of the best things that could have happened because now there’s so much attention on this,” Corbett said. “People are perceiving it as negative, but I guess that means the truth is negative.”
Other concerns have centered around the fact that painting over the mural was a silencing of black students’ voices.
“I think what happened when those voices were painted over speaks louder than if they would have left that image there,” Glembin said. “When they decided to paint black over this, I think they made it painfully [apparent] that there is indeed a big issue at Shorewood. Essentially what they did was paint over the voices of these students. They just covered them up and silenced them.”
“How can you be angry about what kids of color have to say?” said Kaia Dunlap, senior.
According to Davis, it was not his intent to have the decision to paint over the mural appear as a form of censorship or as the silencing of black student voices.
“I understand why people would feel that way, and I again apologize for my actions resulting in that perception … The power of the mural hasn’t been silenced, … and we’re going to use this as a learning point, you know, for myself, and my growth, and from everybody involved,” Davis said.
A meeting between Davis, Kenney, Mohagen, Zimpel and the students, as well as Paru Shah, school board president, Jeff Cyganiak, director of special education, and David Bowen, State Representative of the 10th Assembly district, took place Thursday, June 2 at lunch. In the meeting, Davis apologized for the decision to paint over the mural and discussion focused on how to address concerns raised in the mural.
“They made it clear that they didn’t want to censor us. They were apologetic … They praised us for our work,” Terry said after the meeting.
“I think we … just have to use [this situation] as an opportunity to discuss and rethink how we’re going to approach this in the future,” Zimpel said. “It is essential that we do address this topic via art in the near future.”
“[We talked about] how to move forward, and that we need to focus not on necessarily the censorship part because that has been resolved, but more on how we can institutionalize racial inclusion in Shorewood,” Mohagen said. “I am very proud of my students bringing [the conversation back to the issue discussed in the mural].”
(Top to bottom) Photos courtesy Andrea Vergara and Max Janairo