GET smART—Wirtz Elementary Gets Painted

On June 7, Wirtz Elementary in Paramount, California got an exterior makeover on walls and basketball hoops courtesy of smART: students making art - sponsored by OluKai. The artists in temporary residence included Ben Brough, Gomez Bueno,  Hanai Yusuke, Hi-Dutch, Rich Jacobs, Tim Kerr and Nathaniel Russell. And they went off, with wall-sized pieces by Russell, Yusuke, Brough, Kerr and Bueno. Rich Jacobs painted the basketball backboards using a step-ladder - and they came out just terrific. Caruso started the program seven years ago because he was "bummed that Wirtz kids didn't have an art program," Austin-based artist Tim Kerr wrote on his blog. Kids participate in art sessions after class with the support of Caruso and a "growing network of artists that donate their time." "Paramount...doesn't have a lot of resources, but this program has richness, soul and repercussions that can't be bought," Kerr wrote.  Caruso is the smART project creator / coordinator and believes that world with no art is not a world worth living in. He believes California and American schools do not promote art enough. So he made art in schools his quest. "As a society we celebrate the arts and the people who continue to do them into adulthood, but we don't do enough to foster that artistic passion throughout the core developmental years of children," he said.   "What upsets me about that is the idea that we may be losing some of the greatest creative treasures the world will ever know, and I'm not going to sit back and watch that happen. The intelligence and self-worth of children should not be determined just by how well they can perform arithmetic and their level of reading comprehension... I have watched a child hang their head low for almost an entire year, and you know they feel like a social outcast, and suddenly they discover through art that being themselves is actually cooler than trying to be something they are not. That moment is priceless and life changing. That is the power of art for children." The project happened June 4-5, with seven murals completed by Tim Kerr, Gomez Bueno, Ben Brough, Hi-Dutch, Yusuke Hanai, Nathaniel Russell, and Rich Jacobs.   On June 6, the artists met with roughly 750 students for over 2.5 hours. This allowed the children, ranging in age from preschool to 5th grade, the opportunity to engage in some meaningful dialogue with the artists about each of the seven mural projects. This component of the project is so important to the kids because they establish a bond with the artists and therefore tend to appreciate the murals even more. Tim Kerr has been a participant in the program since 2010, so some of the kids have spent all of their elementary school years frequently seeing him and participating in art projects he has done. Priceless memories are being created for both the artists and the kids. Kerr painted the big, yellow “We Are All Making History” mural - the third he has done at the school. It took two days and I mixed colors and used exterior house paint,” Kerr said in an email. “This one I did on my own.” The faces on the mural are folk singer Pete Seeger, pilot Amelia Earhart, labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, deaf/blind activist Helen Keller, Native American athlete Jim Thorpe, Hawaiian surfer Rell Sunn and civil rights leader John Lewis. The idea (and the idea of all the people that I paint), is that they did what they did not to be famous,” Kerr said. But because they felt like they needed to do something. It shows that we all are making history in our own way big or small. The kids below them have something that ties them to each other. A guitar, a toy plane, a football, a skateboard etc…” Originally from Cantabria, Spain, Gomez Bueno was educated in the Canary Islands and moved to Los Angeles in 1988.  “The elementary school I attended didn't have any murals," he said. "I still can close my eyes and see the sad, empty walls of my school and imagine how much better it would had been if some artists would had decorated them. so when Erik asked me to do one for his school, how could I say no?  For the Wirtz Elementary School I wanted to paint something would put a smile on the faces of the kids, send a positive message, and fuel their imaginations." Bueno’s mural is a  cartoon design full of surfing animals of every possible color and size.  The surfers range from a tiny duck to a huge elephant, while including crocodiles, toucans, zebras, rabbits, giraffes and camels.   “I hope that every kid finds some character they identify with,” Bueno said. “ All the animals are mixed up sharing a wave and some are even sharing the same surfboard. You know surfing is an exclusive sport because of limited access and people often don't want to share the waves.  This piece accentuates the message that sharing is fun, having an open mind, and being inclusive is the key to happiness.” OluKai provided material and moral support, according to Caruso: "OluKai’s willingness to be a sponsor allowed for smART to work with artists that we truly cherish," Caruso said. "smART now had the means to pay for artists' travel costs and materials costs." Caruso identified three primary outcomes of the project and OluKai's support: "One: Kids now feel validated, in that their school looks unique and beautiful, and for the creatives in the bunch they are inspired to keep making art and to also realize they are free to express themselves in a medium that can create joy for so many others around them.   Two: Kids see the power of art and the instant impact it can have on the viewers. Even though kids may have different thoughts of what the murals mean, the important part is that their minds are being challenged to contemplate messages that are both concrete and abstract.   Three: Finally,  the students see the power of volunteering. The fact that the artists gave up so much of their time to give to others creates a spark in kids to go out and follow a path of being an agent of change for  the world. OluKai has now been an agent of change for kids who normally might not have ever been exposed to such opportunities." Paramount, California is in south central Los Angeles, in the middle of a concrete jungle and bordered on all sides by Compton. Lynwood. South Gate, Downey, Bellflower and Long Beach to the south. Paramount is neither the safest nor the most colorful city in southern California, but now the kids of Wirtz Elementary can feel a little safer and have some color and imagination in their lives, thanks to the smART project.