Artists from Miami to Australia transform Wynwood’s Jose de Diego Middle School into an outdoor museum

As street artists and their murals brought color and prominence to Wynwood, Jose de Diego Middle School loomed on the edge of the neighborhood like a blank, white canvas.

A tall wall around the school kept all the excitement out as warehouses gave way to galleries and the rest of the world swarmed in to soak up the culture. Even as Wynwood became an epicenter for art, the school struggled to find and pay for a qualified art teacher.

That is fast changing.

For weeks before Art Basel 2014, artists from Miami to Australia have donated their time and talent to transform Jose de Diego from empty canvas into outdoor museum. They spray-painted murals the size of school buses with the goal of changing the school long after the paint dries.

“Before they came and painted, it was just plain, like they just didn’t care about the school,” said sixth-grader Nakiya Williams, who snapped a cellphone picture of a friend in front of one of the artworks last week.

The makeover all started with a teacher’s idea: Catalina Hidalgo is a four-year veteran at Jose de Diego whose neighborhood roots run decades deep. Her mother once attended the school where Hidalgo now coaches science teachers, and her aunt has lived in the neighborhood from the time it was known more for Puerto Rican culture than for hipsters.

As she watched Wynwood evolve, Hidalgo thought: Why can’t Jose de Diego be a part of that?

“I wanted to work at a place where both students and teacher felt like they are welcome,” Hidalgo said.

She approached principal April Thompson-Williams, who had just started at the school and had already made known her support for the arts and new community partnerships. With her principal’s blessing, Hidalgo dashed off an email to all the local organizations she could find.

Patrick Walsh was the first to answer. Walsh leads the Wynwood Arts District Association. He got Robert de los Rios on board, who runs WynwoodMap.com, a website that tracks the ever-changing street art of Miami.

They took a tour of the school and saw opportunity on every wall.

“Originally it was like, ‘How do we do maybe a mural with a local artist?’ And as soon as I stepped on to the property, and saw the architecture of the school, we saw there was a lot more possible,” Walsh said.

De los Rios was tasked with bringing artists on board for the project. His only problem has been having too many volunteers and not enough walls to paint, he said.

On an outside wall, stretching two stories tall, a mural of a boy in a deep red sweater and baggy jeans seems to bury his face into a corner. A dunce cap that says “artist” is on his head. Eyed at just the right angle, the spray-painting pops out like a 3-D sculpture. It was done by MTO, a graffiti artist from France who is known for his realistic works.

Inside the school’s courtyard, a wall by Miami-based Magnus Sodamin drips with loud colors (students describe it as “messy.”) And Alice Mizrachi, who splits her time between New York and South Florida, is putting the finishing touches on a piece that reminds students: “Thoughts are things.”

“The kids, they have lots of questions. They’re super engaged,” Mizrachi said. “They ask, ‘What does this mean?’”

De los Rios said students have started coming to the school on weekends to play football in the courtyard, where they can watch the artists’ progress. After school, kids sit outside to do homework. Teachers say they notice more kids drawing.

One of them, 12-year old Lamart Duveste, took his duct tape-bound sketch book to show off to the artists. Inside were drawings of a camera and a portrait of Jimi Hendrix.

“My mom really wanted me to start doing something with my life instead of watching TV,” Lamart said. “So I started drawing.”

The sixth-grader said he feels “confident” when he’s sketching, and he hopes to take an art class next year since there was no room for him in a class this year.

Jose de Diego pulls its students from the diverse neighborhoods of Wynwood, Overtown, Little Havana and Little Haiti. The massive school was built for more than 1,000 students, but it’s only about half full.

Its attendance boundaries give the school a cultural richness, populated by American blacks, Caribbeans, Hispanics and recent immigrants. But the one thing these neighborhoods all have in common is poverty. At Jose de Diego, 96 percent of kids can’t afford their own lunch, according to state records. They get it for free or at a reduced cost through the federal government.

Williams, the principal, has hired an art teacher for the first time in years. Across the district, a majority of schools have art teachers. At the middle school level, there are 56 visual arts teachers and 82 schools, though some schools share the same teacher.

But some schools don’t have enough students who are interested in arts programs to justify hiring a teacher, said Associate Superintendent Pablo Ortiz. Other times, kids have to take remedial classes because of low test scores, which eats into their ability to take elective classes.

With the community’s eyes now on Jose de Diego, a movement is underway to fund a long-term arts program at the school — or even turn it into a magnet program.

They envision after-school tours, maybe led by students, in exchange for donations. There are plans for kids to paint their own wall. But the most ambitious goal comes with a $500,000 price tag. That would pay for teachers and supplies for a fledgling arts program.

To reach that goal, artists have donated about a dozen pieces of their own art for a school-run auction. Donations are also being accepted at projectwynwood.com/raw.

“This is forever. These kids don’t just come to school during Basel,” said de los Rios. “They’re turning this into a place where you want to go to school.”

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