Distance Mural Unveiling

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How art kept students’ hearts open while their school was shut down


JUNE 3, 2020

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Gizele Campos, a fifth-grader at Pacific View Leadership Elementary School in Paradise Hills, cuts the red ribbon during the recent unveiling of the mural she and some of her classmates created during Zoom video sessions as part of the ArtReach Mural Program. ArtReach mural program manager Izzy Halpern (left) and teaching artist Hanna Gundrum were on hand to help. (Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The mural was a lot smaller than the creators planned, a modest 3 feet by 5 feet instead of a whopping two stories. The big outdoor painting experience became an in-home affair, as the young artists fended off nosy siblings and interfering pets so they could make their new deadline. The big dedication ceremony was downsized in a major way.

When the San Diego Unified School District shut down all of its schools on March 16 to prevent the spread of coronavirus, nothing about the mural planned for a wall on the campus of the Pacific View Leadership Elementary School in Paradise Hills happened the way it was supposed to. 

It happened the way it needed to.

“It was like, ‘OK, so things didn’t go the way we planned. But we grew something beautiful out of it,’” said teacher Cindy Trunzo, whose fifth-grade students were supposed to start painting the mural on March 16.

“It showed me and it showed the kids that we don’t have to dwell on how negative things are. If we are willing to be flexible and throw ourselves into a new experience, we can trust that we will end up with something special.”

Like the school’s original mural plans, the coronavirus-related revision was a product of ArtReach San Diego, a 13-year-old nonprofit that provides free- or low-cost visual arts classes and projects to eligible schools that have little or no arts-education resources. 

One of ArtReach’s newest offerings is the 2-year-old Mural Program, which gives students the chance to liven up their schools and neighborhoods with murals that they plan and paint themselves. With the help of an ArtReach teaching artist, the students work together to come up with a theme, sketch out a plan and then paint the final product using techniques they learn in their mural classes. 

And when the murals are finished, they are unveiled at a ribbon-cutting party attended by the school’s students and faculty, along with parents, grandparents and members of the community.

That is the usual plan, anyway. But when the schools were shut down, the Pacific View mural looked like it might be over, too. 

Instead, ArtReach went to Plan P. 

That is “P” for “Pivot.” Instead of scratching the mural, the ArtReach team figured out a way to re-imagine it. Instead of painting a two-story mural on the wall of the multipurpose room/library, what if they went with a smaller mural made up of individual panels that the 11 participating students could paint at home? 

Teaching artist Hanna Gundrum loved the idea. Trunzo loved the idea. And Trunzo’s students loved the idea so much, they offered up their allowances and piggy-bank funds to pay for the art supplies they would need to paint from home. The ArtReach staff did not love that idea.

“Cindy reached out and said, ‘This is how much this means to them. They are wanting to give up their life savings for art,’” ArtReach executive director Sarah Holbach remembered. “We just thought, ‘This is too important. It is our responsibility to show up for these kids and make it happen.’”

So Gundrum created a quick fundraising campaign featuring some handmade stickers she whipped up, and ArtReach asked for donations on its website. The money raised paid for individual Mural Artist Kits that included all of the supplies the students needed to paint the individual panels that would make up their social-distancing mural, along with supplies for the projects they would be making with Gundrum after the mural was finished. 

Their art classes with Gundrum would happen on the Zoom video-conferencing platform, and their art studios could be anything from the floor of the bedrooms they share with their siblings to a couple of cardboard boxes piled up on the patio. 

The projects were smaller, but the payoffs were huge.

“Our class met every Wednesday at 1 p.m., and they told me it gave them something to look forward to all week,” Gundrum said. “Art is really great for quality alone time, but it is also a good way to build community with your peers and to share ideas. And now, these kids can walk by the mural with their families and say, ‘I helped make that.’”

On May 28, a small group of masked Pacific View students and their masked parents gathered at a stretch of chain-link fence just outside the school’s playground for the mural’s installation and ribbon-cutting ceremony. The finished product features a butterfly, a gold and yellow rose and and two jaunty cacti, along with two short messages that say everything the students and their community need to hear right now.

“You are made of magic,” it says. “Keep going.”

After the ribbon-cutting ceremony, 11-year-old Milee Garcia stepped back to check out the final results of her class’ group effort. She likes how it looks, but she loves how it feels.

“Painting it made me feel calmer, and it gave me a little time for myself,” said Milee, who painted her panel in the garage while her two siblings did their distance-learning in the house. “It makes me feel like even though it’s a hard time, we can make things better.”

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