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‘I was just blown away.’ Artists shocked over student mural painted over at McLane High School

McLane mural work.JPG
Photo credit: Naomi Marie
Students worked on a mural at McLane High School July 11-15, 2022.

School's principal apologizes for erasing newly painted mural completed as part of a summer arts camp.

McLane High School’s administrative leaders faced backlash Thursday over a decision to paint over a student mural project on campus. The mural had just been completed July 15 as part of Fresno Unified's summer mural arts program that allows students from all ranges of experience to take part in creating a mural on their campus.

Jason Esquivel, 37, is the director. He’s been with the program since it started in June 2021. Esquivel planned to create four murals this summer at Cooper Middle School, Tehipite Middle School, McLane High School and Kings Canyon Middle School. Esquivel said he works with each school to select and approve of a mural design weeks ahead of painting. He said a vice-principal selected the mural’s design in June.

McLane finished mural.JPG
Photo credit: Naomi Marie
Newly finished mural on cafeteria wall at McLane High School was painted over July 27, 2022.

“It was entitled ‘R.I.S.E. Together.’ It was just a togetherness,” Esquivel said. “It was trees all lined up, rising from the ground.” The background was an abstract blend of bright yellow, orange, blue and pink hues. Ten students were involved in painting the mural during the week of July 11-15 when temperatures soared past 100 degrees. Despite the difficult conditions, Esquivel said the students had fun working together that week and left with a sense of accomplishment. “The kids are really excited to paint something that will be there forever,” he said.

That’s why Esquivel said he was shocked to drive past the school this week to see a blank red wall. He passed by McLane on his driving route to another school mural project when he noticed the mural was gone on Wednesday. “I was just blown away. Honestly, I’m still kind of blown away by it,” Esquivel said. “If I didn’t go out that way, if I didn’t drive by there, then I would have never known because no one ever called me.”

Naomi Marie, 29, is an artist who also works with the mural arts program. Marie said students and staff at McLane High School told her the decision to paint over the mural came from Principal Brian Wulf, though they weren’t clear of his motive. Marie said finding out about the loss of the mural was very upsetting, but not a reflection of the school as a whole. “But yet, if you're the one in charge of this whole entire thing and you have the gumption to say ‘no, I'm going to paint over this,’ what are you saying to the community?”

Marie and Esquivel received a call from Principal Wulf Thursday morning to personally apologize. “We said, ‘no, don’t apologize to us, apologize to the parents and the students themselves,’” Marie said.

In an interview with KVPR, Fresno Unified School Board Trustee Veva Islas, who represents the McLane High School district, acknowledged that the decision to paint over the mural was ‘a huge mistake.’

“I think that mistake inadvertently or directly sent a negative message to the artistic community and to students about the importance of their work and their art,“ Islas said.

Islas hoped the incident would serve as a teachable moment for the district as it looks to expand arts projects in the future. “It does give me a lot of insight. And I think my colleagues who have been witnessing this have also been appreciating just how important it is to be more thoughtful and methodical in how we're executing and planning these types of projects,” she said.

Islas said the incident may be addressed in the form of a new written policy if it’s taken up on the school board’s policy committee. But as a member of the school board, Islas could not comment on disciplinary actions, if any, that principal Brian Wulf could face. “He shared with me what happened. He's acknowledged the mistake that was made. He's taking responsibility by reaching out to the muralists and trying to take measures to make it right, which I'm very glad that he's doing,” she said.

McLane mural names.JPG
Photo credit: Naomi Marie
Students and artists signed the mural at McLane High School.

The Fresno Unified School District declined KVPR’s request for an interview. Spokesperson Nikki Henry said in an email reply: “Principal Wulf is focusing on working directly with the artists and student artists to repair through restorative practices. With that said, we want to focus our efforts directly with those impacted and will be declining any interviews.”

McLane High School issued a statement through Fresno Unified Thursday, saying in part: “Recently a youth summer camp project was painted over at McLane High School and we realize that action caused hurt to current and future artists. We want to offer our sincerest apologies for causing this harm and reaffirm our commitment to supporting the arts and art education.”

In its statement, McLane High School acknowledged the school’s commitment to the arts with projects like its award-winning Artventure Academy which displays student artwork on campus. The school said it will continue to invest in arts education and “when the time is right would appreciate an opportunity to have McLane students and Art Teachers collaborate with the artist from this most recent camp to design and install a permanent mural that celebrates the spirit and heritage of our community.”

But program director Jason Esquivel said returning is no longer an option. With paint supplies, he estimated the mural cost between $500-$1,000, plus a week of time for ten students and their parents shuttling them back and forth from campus. “The kids are the ones who are going to pay for it ultimately because we can't go back and paint again,” he said. “It's done already.”

Soreath Hok is a multimedia journalist with over 16 years of experience in radio, television and digital production. She is a 2022 National Edward R. Murrow Award winner. At KVPR she covers local government, politics and other local news.