• Stuart Sheldon

Paint A School, Save The World

This amazing wall by Melbourne artist Adnate typifies the dreary public middle school’s transformation. Photo by Sean R. Sullivan

“Our school used to look like a prison. Now it looks like a place I want to come to everyday,” a shining 13-year old girl told Miami’s Jose de Diego Middle School’s rookie principal, April Thompson-Williams. Like so many inner city schools, JdD was a sprawling, windowless bunker before one of its teachers had the brilliant yet simple idea to reach out to local artists. 


After. The delicious work of Douglas Hoekzema, aka Hoxxoh.

In just a few days, twenty-plus huge walls went from big blank barriers to mesmerizing portals. Now, says principal Thompson, the 700 students consider the space “sacred.”

Nothing like this existed at the mass of sour yellow boxes that was my public middle school, and we were located in a leafy suburb. Our grounds were beat up and adequate at best, certainly not inspiring. Sacred? Yeah, right.  Now, at JdD, a pent-up enthusiasm has been released in an underserved student population, where 96% receive subsidized lunch and where, like so many schools across the country, budgetary cuts have removed art and music programs. There is a new “calmness, where students feel the need to behave out of respect for the art,” Thompson said. “Because they were there to bear witness to these works from beginning to end. And they feel a responsibility to protect the work and tell the story.”


Whimsical Norwegian artist Martin Whatson brought two new stencil works, including this interior piece called “Dancer”

JdD sits adjacent to the Wynwood Arts District, a darling of the international contemporary art scene. Still, as is so often the case, the working class neighborhoods nearby saw little to none of the creative and financial influx happening a few blocks away. So, JdD joined forces with the local business association and together, they succeeded in bringing both killer local and world renowned street artists to the school, all of whom graciously donated their works. Next, they aim to support the creation of a permanent arts and music magnet program at JdD. If the government can’t do it, passionate citizens can. They are seeking donations of any size, and I urge you to support them here.

One 7th-grader said it all, “Now that they came, they made our lives better. It makes us want to come to school.” America’s (and the world’s) excellence is predicated on kids who want to come to school.

Giddy students line up for class in the hallway. Photo by Walter Michot, Miami Herald staff

Each class was assigned to a different artist and was engaged in that artist’s process from inception to completion.

Chrome Dog by Puerto Rican street artist Bikism

The work is fierce and brutally honest, as fine art should be. It conveys deep and dark truths far more effectively than words ever could. When I was 12, I knew nothing of the power of art and its secrets. For me, art was trying (in vain) to keep my fro perfectly round. 

The students gathered and patiently watched the works slowly unfold and reveal their potent messages … about isolation and hope and fear and fantasy. 

Up and coming superstar, Santiago Rubino from Spinello Projects

More and more kids now walk around with sketchbooks, sitting between classes and drawing. “When can I paint? Will you give me free time so I can paint?” one 6th-grader asked the principal.

The fuse is lit!

Artist like Toof AND the school showed enormous boldness, exemplified by this Great White shark devouring the kids as they enter. The metaphors are endless!

“Keeping it 100,” is high praise in teen slang. It means to to be honest and stick to the way you are, no matter what any one else thinks. This was how the students described the artists. Can you think of a finer example for impressionable teens in the face of the frenetic and superficial world they occupy?

Suck Face by British star DFace

Much respect goes not just to the mind-blowing artists but to the young school principal and the public school system for allowing such no-hold-barred images to attack their barren walls.

The sad truth is that our public schools are crumbling, physically and academically. With some paint and the magic of visionary artists, we can begin to bring some of the lost sparkle back to our kids’ learning environments.

Schools don’t need to look like this.

I am a co-founder of a non-profit called Build Crew, devoted to bringing large-scale public art into our lives. Email me to help bring the magic of large artworks to more underserved schools across America.

The Irish street artist Fin DAC depicts his signature Asian ladies.

Let’s find local artists in YOUR TOWN and set them free on your kids’ walls … and hearts!

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#underservedpopulations #streetart #BuildCrew #stuartsheldon #ProjectWynwood #publicschool #arteducation #inspiration #JosesdeDiegoMiddleSchool #publiceducation #ALonelyFoolsMasterpiece

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©2020 Stuart Sheldon.