A yearslong dream of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) to beautify a plain concrete wall at its Montgomery, Alabama, national headquarters came to fruition this year when local public high school artists painted a radiant, 14-color mural depicting the SPLC’s four mission – or “impact” – areas on the building’s outdoor patio deck.
“We were starting to bring staff back to the office [since the COVID-19 pandemic] and wanted to make the office more appealing, but we also wanted mission-aligned artwork,” said Margaret Huang, who became SPLC president and CEO in 2020. After Huang’s arrival – and nearing the organization’s 50th anniversary – the SPLC adopted new mission and vision statements in 2020.
“When [SPLC Chief of Staff and Culture Lecia Brooks] said she had always wanted to have a mural painted … that was at the top of my list,” Huang said. “We wanted staff and visitors to see the mural to understand our issues and why we are tackling them. And we wanted to involve students.”
For the 12 student artists from four Montgomery-area high schools who participated in the mural design and painting last winter and this spring, the experience was unforgettable, if not life-changing.
“I loved everything about it,” said Sabrina Mejia Ramirez, 16. “I was up for painting any [of the four] areas, but my first choice was decriminalization and decarcerating Black and Brown people. I remembered how people see people of color as criminal. I’m Hispanic and people have said to my face that Hispanics are drug dealers – ignorant stuff. If someone is being racially mean to you, you would really get upset, sad. But now I want to show that in art: Black people are not criminals. Hispanics are not drug dealers.”
The process begins
The mural project’s inception was as collaborative as its execution.
Sunny Paulk, SPLC senior designer, has painted murals around Montgomery over the past seven years and had discussed a mural with Brooks even longer.
“I love anything to do with art, but I thought it was an exciting project to work with students,” she said. “The majority had never worked on a mural before.”
Paulk contacted community arts activist and friend, Kalonji Gilchrist, founder of 21 Dreams Art & Culture. Brooks and the SPLC had worked with Gilchrist several times and knew he had contacts with Montgomery art teachers.
“We knew if anyone could bring students together for a mural project he could,” Paulk said.
In fact, Gilchrist had been working with under-18 student artists since the pandemic shut public schools in 2020, and in 2021 he directed the student artists who painted the Evolution of Education mural across from Montgomery City Hall.
Gilchrist chose the 12 students (and three alternates) based on teacher recommendations and their promised commitment, and on Martin Luther King Day 2022 – the very day the SPLC’s Civil Rights Memorial Center (CRMC) re-opened after its pandemic shutdown – he, Huang, Brooks, Paulk and the students met there to discuss the project’s scope and goals. Afterward, CRMC Director Tafeni English gave the artists a tour of the museum.
Paulk and Gilchrist held a series of Zoom brainstorming, sketching and planning meetings in February and March. The artists were divided into four impact-area teams of three, based on individual interest, and each team developed the design. Paulk then created a digital rendering of the four designs on the 65-foot-long, 7.5-foot-high patio wall onto the sketch.
During the design phase, Paulk said, “There was very high enthusiasm and commitment. One student on the dismantling white nationalism team did research and came upon the Charlottesville and Jan. 6 riots. She sent her research to all of us by email. She was outraged and explained to the others how dangerous white supremacy is.
“The kids blew me away,” Paulk continued. “For eradicating poverty, I never would have thought to show a family planting vegetables in front of a greenhouse.”
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 [description] 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.”
“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.”