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Letting art instill pride

An Art Institute project beautifies the Scarritt Renaissance neighborhood

Kansas City Art Institute Illustration instructor Hector Casanova works on a mural panel for Scarritt Elementary. (Photos: Julie Denesha | Special Correspondent to KCPT)
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When the school closed in 2011, Scarritt Elementary in the historic Northeast became a magnet for vandalism. With 76 boarded-up windows and 12 doorways, the vacant building takes up an entire city block. Facing an uphill battle against graffiti, Kansas City Public Schools turned to Héctor Casanova, an instructor in the Illustration Department at the Kansas City Art Institute. Casanova’s students are working to transform the building into a colorful mural project that the neighborhood can take pride in.

In the courtyard behind the Illustration Department at the Kansas City Art Institute, Casanova is working with student Victoria Khan as she tries to get the correct position for a musician’s hands on a saxophone. “The tip of the finger is really tiny,” said Casanova as he helps define the lines. “That’s what makes it look funky.”

“The most effective way to combat vandalism and graffiti is through murals.” Casanova said. The community can recapture a sense of worth and a sense of pride.”

Allason Lewis, an Illustration student at KCAI, ponders the difference between graffiti and art.

“You’d think that if you’re going to tag the side of a school building, why would you care about tagging a piece of art, but I guess that there’s a certain respect for the effort that someone puts in,” said Lewis.

For Casanova, keeping the project aesthetically cohesive was his biggest hurdle.

“I came up with this idea of keeping everything unified by using a very limited color palette. Having black and white and then one primary color and one accent color each time that we do the project,” Casanova said.  “If we ended up with something that was noisy and just did not have any cohesiveness, it would not necessarily be a significant improvement over just the graffiti noise,” Casanova said.

The Installation

Neighbors watch as workers from Kansas City Public Schools install the completed mural boards at the Scarritt Elementary. Mark’Kesha Mack, a resident of the Scarritt Renaissance neighborhood, spoke to Casanova as he monitored the flurry of activity.

“So they will put their names on them you said,” Mack asked.

“Well, we’re going to have all the names on panels at the bottom.” said Casanova.

“I love how it’s making the community very colorful,” Mack said. “It’s not just dull and white, and it’s not just when I go out on my porch I don’t see just an old school, broke down. I see beautiful colors. It’s very wonderful.”

Debbie Dougherty, District Carpenter for Kansas City Public Schools, oversees workers as they replace the old white panels with newly-painted ones.

“They pretty much have done a really great job on the murals,” Dougherty said. “It really livens (it) up and it’s really helped us keep down the graffiti on this school. And I think it brightens up and brings the neighborhood together. Instead of having a school that is just boarded up with ugly-looking boards, now you can come up and have a conversation of what that picture means to you.”

Surrounded by murals with a canine theme, KCAI Illustration student Luna Green directs members of her team as they ponder adding details to their grouping of gold-hued dogs.

“We were trying to make it make the school have a big presence like a cathedral would,” said Green. “We looked at medieval art and stained glass of cathedrals. They have such an enormous power. We wanted to give our mural that power.”

As Green’s group works, Casanova steps in to offer some advice on the flowers that frame the dogs.

“You could make stencils for the flowers themselves.” Casanova said.

“People want to be given the opportunity to feel smart,” said Casanova. “I encourage my students to treat their audiences like they’re smart. To not make their work so transparent and so linear that there is nothing to get.”

Student Allason Lewis and her team are exploring a theme of childhood and diversity. “We wanted to show these different species of animals, humans, ducks, fish, dog, all kind of habituating in this one place, and it being peaceful,” Lewis said. “And the diversity of this biome and this like habitat is what makes it livable and we wanted that to be reflected in the piece that we made.”

An outsized saxophone player takes shape while student Mika Pitts and his team paint. Kansas City’s musical history inspired their panels.

“We think that most people associate jazz with saxophone and piano so we chose those two symbols,” said Pitts. “The player himself is kind of imitating a 20s-30s style of artwork. We really wanted to base our stylistic choices off of that time period.”

Working on the other side of the courtyard, student Andrew Dowling added detail to a coyote, one of the creatures sharing a tranquil moment beneath the night sky.

“There is a little hilltop where a good couple of animals are sitting and looking at the sky together,” Dowling said. “Above them, there are star constellations that illustrate specific animals and sea creatures like sharks, bulls, monkeys, and dragons even.”

Casanova said part of the class theme is an artist’s societal responsibility.

“That is one of the things that I talk to the students a lot about. By being an artist, you are basically kind of joining this sort of like elite force where you are developing skills and talents so that you may have access to brains through their eyes,” Casanova said. “With the access to so many people, there comes a great deal of power and responsibility of making the world more beautiful.”

A Chance to Influence

Once the murals were installed, the students traveled to Scarritt Elementary to see how they looked on the building.

“There’s so much we can do as artists to influence children and influence how they see the world, and to change how people see the world, to open everybody’s minds,” student Green said. “I think art really does that.”

“It’ll be a great success for everybody that lives around there,” Green continued. “It will be a lot of inspiration. A lot of hope.”

Student Lewis reflected on the satisfaction of completing the project.

“There is a really great sense in doing something that helps other people. The more I am thinking about it, the more I find it really rewarding in a way that I didn’t expect,” Lewis said.

“It has completely changed the feel of that part of the neighborhood,” Casanova said. “Just that intersection is just so bright and beautiful.”

Julie Denesha’s story on the Scarritt Elementary mural project will be featured on the next episode of Arts Upload on KCPT.

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