With the Help of Students, Street Artists Transform an LA High School

SAN FERNANDO, Calif. — For the past two weeks, dozens of artists and students have been hard at work covering the campus of the César E. Chávez Learning Academies (CCLA) in a series of new murals. The project is the latest in an eight-year partnership between the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and Branded Arts, an LA-based organization that has produced over 700 murals around the world. For this latest project, Branded Arts tapped an eclectic group of 15 artists, from well-known names in the worlds of street and fine art to veteran muralists with deep ties to local communities, including Kenny Scharf, MURO, Ozzie Juarez, Erica Friend (aka Insomniart), Carlo Valentino, Jesica Burlaza, Levi Ponce, and Shantell Martin.

On Wednesday afternoon, May 22, Branded Arts President Warren Brand was checking in with artists to ensure they had enough paint and coordinating placement of boom lifts. As he rode his skateboard from site to site like an eager teenager, he stopped to greet students and ask their opinions of the new artwork, beaming with infectious enthusiasm.

In addition to working on ground-level murals, students were involved in the concept phase, filling out surveys so that contributors could “create art that has context with what students and the community are looking to see,” Brand told Hyperallergic. The accepted proposals were further refined in weekly committee meetings that included student input.

The final designs reflected what students felt was meaningful, from portraits of labor leaders César Chavéz and Dolores Huerta to images of eagles — the school’s mascot, but also an important symbol for Mexican Americans in a school that is about 95% Latino. They featured quotes like “Sí Se Puede!” (“Yes We Can”) and “Sueña Grandes Sueños” (“Dream Big Dreams”) as well as graphics that corresponded to one of the four high schools that make up the César E. Chávez Learning Academies: ArTES (Arts, Theatre, Entertainment) Magnet, Social Justice Humanities Academy, Academy of Scientific Exploration, and the Technology Preparatory Academy.

After production began on the murals, students who were not painting formed other committees focused on documenting and archiving the process, through which they interviewed artists and designed a website. Branded Arts also organized a symposium field trip for students featuring presentations by arts professionals; a festival last Friday, May 24 with performances by Kalpulli Temachtia Quetzalcoatl, BLK LT$, and The GR818ERS; and an exhibition featuring artwork by muralists and students. 

The budget for the project is in the “low six figures,” according to a representative for Branded Arts, and includes funding from CCLA, Branded Arts, and LAUSD, as well as in-kind donations from Behr Paint, Herc Rentals, and Quixote Studios. Participating artists received an honorarium.

The final murals represent an aesthetic and conceptual diversity that balances each artist’s style, the physical demands of the site, and the needs and desires of the community. A recent tour led by Brand began at an exterior wall covered with Kenny Scharf’s signature cartoon faces before moving onto Sofia Enriquez’s teal mural that combines typography and flash tattoo icons with the words “Mija Ponte Lista” followed by a large abstract composition by Spanish street artist MURO.

The inside of the campus features Levi Ponce’s realistic portraits of Chávez and Huerta, Shantell Martin’s lyrical black-and-white linework, and Carlo Valentino’s vibrant purple and orange painting. which becomes three-dimensional when viewed through a smartphone after scanning a QR code.

Erica Friend’s mural pays homage to farmworkers with depictions of hands planting seeds and harvesting corn and a stylized raised fist representing the movement. A quote from Huerta ties it all together: “Honor the hands that harvest your crops.” Her roots here run deep: She was born and raised in the area and is currently a commissioner for the Parks and Rec department of the city of San Fernando.

With a distinctly different background, Shantell Martin was born in London and moved to LA only 18 months ago. For her mural she chose symbols with universal relevance: faces, birds, and the word “be,” suggesting expansive potential. 

“Unfortunately we live in a world where there is this facade around art and who can do it,” she told Hyperallergic. “I think the more we’re exposed to it the more we give permission to other people to be a part of creative fields.”

Although Ozzie Juarez grew up in South LA, he knew little of the San Fernando Valley to the north, associating it more with stereotypical White suburbia as it is portrayed in TV and film. After learning that the school was overwhelmingly Latino and visiting the campus, he realized “there’s a lot of people who look like me,” he said, finding an unexpected connection. His mural features an eagle atop a lowrider with the word “dreamer” above. As a teen, a group of artists painted murals at Juarez’s school in Huntington Park, although he was unable to participate. 

“I was so excited about the murals, but I never had a chance to paint my own school,” he told Hyperallergic. “I remember how important it was for me to look at a Brown person painting and being creative. I want to be that for students here. Now it’s full circle.”

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