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Student mural painted over at high school in Fresno without explanation. School apologizes

The Fresno Bee - 7/31/2022

On his way to teach at a summer mural camp this week, local artist Jason Esquivel drove past the McLane High School cafeteria expecting to see the words “Rise Together” on the mural he and several students had painted just two weeks earlier.

The mural — which had been pre-approved by a school administrator as part of a Fresno Unified summer school arts program — symbolized unity, community, kindness and togetherness, he said.

Instead, he found it painted over.

He said he was shocked, disappointed and heartbroken that McLane would paint over a mural worked on by students from across Fresno.

Naomi Guzmán, who goes by the artist name Naomi Marie, is a local artist and part of the mural program. She said she was mystified by the decision to wipe out the student’s mural.

“How do you say you care about kids when you paint over their work?” she said.

Fresno Unified School District first asked Esquivel to teach students about painting murals a year ago. So he founded the Jason Esquivel Mural Program to teach and promote art.

At least part of the frustration, he said, stemmed from the fact that nobody from the district contacted him or let him know school leaders had a problem with the mural. He said he would’ve happily changed it had anyone from FUSD reached out.

“But they didn’t do that at all,” Esquivel said. “And I find out as I’m passing by. No one told me. No one contacted me. Nothing.”

In a text message to The Bee’s Education Lab on Wednesday, FUSD Trustee Veva Islas said she was aware of the controversy and said the school’s principal was trying to contact the muralist to “make things right.”

Islas didn’t have many details about the decision to paint over the student’s mural, but on Twitter said it was “not a good decision.”

“Yes, it was a mistake,” Islas said on Twitter. “I’m so sorry this happened.”

Esquivel said he didn’t hear from the school’s principal until Thursday morning.

“The principal called to apologize, but I told him not to apologize to us; apologize to the students,” Esquivel told The Bee’s Education Lab.

Leadership does not plan to share why school administrators decided to paint over the mural they’d already approved.

“Our schools are focused on restorative practices; therefore, we don’t want to provide the reasoning to share an excuse,” FUSD spokesperson Nikki Henry said.

Henry said the school is working with student artists and local artists from the camp to apologize and make it right.

School administration realizes they hurt “current and future artists.”

“We want to offer our sincerest apologies for causing this harm and reaffirm our commitment to supporting the arts and art education,” McLane’s team said in a statement Henry emailed to the Ed Lab.

20-plus hours put into the approved mural

The mural was supposed to be up for years to come.

Leaving their handprints and signatures, the students and local artists worked from 9 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday to do the mural.

The district picked the locations, which included Cooper Middle, McLane High, Tehipite Middle and Kings Canyon, this summer. In all, six Fresno Unified schools have had murals painted by the students and artists, including the four from this year’s summer camps.

School administration approved each aspect of the mural, from the theme to the colors to the statements, phrases, or words, Naomi Marie said about the process.

For McLane, Vice Principal Lauren Trzeciak approved the setting sunset with trees rising together as one, according to Esquivel. Esquivel supplied the paints and guidance to the students as they and local artists spent hours painting the mural.

It’s not just about the time and effort the students and artists put into their art.

As a Chicana, Naomi Marie said painting over the mural was disrespectful to the students and artists who painted it and to their history.

“Murals are a part of our history as Mexican people,” she discussed, noting how most of the student artists were Latino. “Because our history was never acknowledged in museums, we painted our own. For a school to paint over a mural, you’re painting over our history. You’re painting over our dignity.”

McLane High School said it has a rich history of supporting young artists through art education, including student artwork displayed “proudly and prominently” around campus.

“McLane will continue to invest in arts education and when the time is right would appreciate an opportunity to have McLane students and art teachers collaborate with the artist from this most recent camp to design and install a permanent mural that celebrates the spirit and heritage of our community,” McLane’s emailed statement also said.

Even though the summer camp often means not all administrators are present, Esquivel said he would work to be even more vigilant and careful moving forward to get administrator approval. He may even start having the administrators sign a document about their approval.

“We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing,” he said.

And what they’ve been doing is giving students art and the opportunities art provides.

‘Give them a paintbrush:’ the program is for kids

Esquivel summed up the need to continue the program in one word: “youth.”

The kids have been through a lot, not only because of the pandemic but because of the things they battle daily, Esquivel and Naomi Marie said.

They work with students who are children of farm workers and are being tempted by gang involvement or at risk of being victims to gang violence as well as other experiences.

Through the program, kids have fun as they learn about art by creating art, Esquivel said.

And sometimes the kids who are struggling behaviorally just need someone to give them a paintbrush, Naomi Marie said.

“You give them opportunities when you give them a paintbrush, a pencil, or a marker, and you say, ‘You create something great, and we will value it as a community,’” Naomi Marie said. “That’s what each member of the mural program believes.”

The Education Lab is a local journalism initiative that highlights education issues critical to the advancement of the San Joaquin Valley. It is funded by donors. Learn about The Bee’s Education Lab at its website.

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