Designs transform into reality

The artists painted over the course of five weekends. Paulk guided the painting on site; Huang, Brooks and Gilchrist dropped in to watch the artists at work; and SPLC staff and visitors observed the developing mural from the SPLC office.  

“I told them to go with their gut,” Paulk said when describing how the artists chose their vivid colors and decided where to use them.

“I had set a color palette that Margaret and Lecia approved, but they wanted the kids to have a sense of agency in the project,” Paulk explained. “Most people want to see final drawings and full colors, but they didn’t need me to show them what colors would go where. This was really an amazing opportunity for high school students – from start to finish – to learn how to write a proposal to the client, come up with sketches and ideas, how to present that as a mock-up, choose materials, endure weather challenges and then submit invoices [for time and food].” All students who completed the project received a stipend for their participation.

Brooks had suggested that the mural feature the W.E.B. Du Bois quotation, “Where the South Goes, so goes the nation” to reflect the SPLC’s focus on fighting injustice in the South. In the finished mural, the words serve as the artistic center, both literally and visually, to express the SPLC’s goals.

“So often the South is described in terms of its deficits,” Huang said. “The Du Bois quote reclaims this Southern Poverty Law CenterSPLC unites with teen artists to paint inspiring muralFor the 12 student artists from four Montgomery-area high schools who
participated in the mural design and painting last winter and this….6 days ago as a positive.”

For the adults who participated in the project, all agree that the best part was simply observing teens from four different schools come together as one, particularly after the pandemic kept them isolated from friends and social events.

“Not being a teacher myself, it was very inspiring to go from not really knowing how the project would come out based on the Zoom meetings to seeing them together for the first time, talking, laughing,” said Gilchrist. “It gave me an assurance that when you get kids together doing what they love – working together, creating, there is harmony.”

Paulk agreed.

“The most fun I had was the days on the patio just hearing everyone’s chatter,” said Paulk. “I remember being in high school, the problems, the drama, so it was interesting to hear what’s going on in their lives, what they care about. I heard how hard it was to be back at school. They are really traumatized. Being outside and painting opened them up to sharing and becoming friends. My favorite moment was the last hour when we had to be done and 10 of the artists went over to the voting rights section to help [that team] finish.”

The teamwork and passion for the project created a powerful piece of art.

“It’s visually stunning,” Brooks said. “It’s beautiful to see every day. I was gratified to know that our goals are clear and that they resonated with the student artists.”

For Huang, the project’s success presented an unexpected personal learning opportunity.

“The project reminded me that not everyone communicates in the world the way I do, that students who might not talk about the issues and how they affect their lives can capture them visually,” she said. “It’s great to remember that we have to use different ways to talk to our audiences. Some are aroused by speech, some by art. Art is such a compelling way to be personally involved and personally connected.”

Limited by the lack of wall space at the Montgomery office’s largely glass headquarters, Huang now envisions traveling art or photograph exhibitions to support policy campaigns – and more student artist collaborations.

Given Ramirez’s passion for art and justice, Montgomery may yet see more of the student’s work around town.

“I’m looking forward to doing more murals when I grow up,” the rising high school junior said.

“I want to do more social subjects like this. I want to teach people to be kind, to not say such mean words that hold such weight.”