By Mike McKibbin
Many of the walls at Cheltenham Elementary School do not look like the normal, blank, brick walls of a school building.
They are colorfully decorated with imaginative mural paintings, thanks to a Miami, Florida-based nonprofit program called the Re-imagining Arts Worldwide (RAW) Project. With the key help of around 30 volunteer artists, 23 murals — including some on inside corridor walls as well — were painted over about three weeks in September.
Principal Felice Manzanares said the project was done “in the right place, at the right time.”
“This school was built in 1970 and it was really unrecognizable as a school building with nothing but blank walls,” she said. “We want it to look like a place where there are kids and people can say ‘that’s a school’.”
In September 2017, The RAW Project painted murals on three Denver elementary schools in the Villa Park and Sun Valley neighborhoods: Eagleton, Cowell and Fairview, branching out from Miami’s Wynwood urban arts district where the project began in 2014. Another area school included in the local project was Garden Place Elementary.
Since 2014, The RAW Project completed more than 130 school murals, working with artists ranging from recent graduates to established international blue-chip talent, such as Shepard Fairey, D*Face, Axel Void and Mark “MADSTEEZ” Deren.
Among the positive results attributed to the RAW Project are an increase in student and community engagement, improved student and staff morale, school pride, enrollment, class attendance, test scores and decreased bullying and violence.
Manzanares said one project benefit she noticed were happier parents who visited the school.
“They come to the school and see the paintings and they’re more open, smiling and proud of the school,” she added. “We’ve heard people say they were really glad to see us do something cool with the school.”
In 2016, the RAW Project expanded as a campaign to support the creation of arts programs at schools nationwide. In the U.S., six million students receive no arts education and 60 percent of schools have seen their arts programs lose all funding.
Manzanares said about 96 percent of Cheltenham’s 390 students come from low-income families, are eligible for the free lunch program and the school does not have much of an arts program.
“This is a chance to bring in folks that have not engaged with us before,” she added. “And these are all well-known artists.”
The school, 1580 Julian St., held a First Friday Art Walk event on Oct. 5 for parents and community members to see and learn more about each mural.
The project did not cost the school any money, Manzanares noted, while Denver Public Schools paid for a protective coating on each wall where the murals were painted.
Each RAW Project has a budget of around $150,000, but organizers only raised less than $30,000 for the Cheltenham project, said Audrey Sykes, co-founder/director of the RAW Project. The Denver Urban Arts Fund contributed $8,000 and Sykes credited in-kind donations worth about $80,000 for things such as lifts, food and paint discounts with helping make the project — the eighth nationally — happen.
“The private donors are not friends and family, they are art collectors and artists who want to see the project happen,” Sykes added. “And Felicia took the initiative and asked her staff and teachers to help feed the artists, so they were spoiled with all the good home-cooked food. They covered all the lunches and saved us about $10,000.”
Manzanares pointed out the artists involve the students in deciding what to paint and some students help the artists paint.
“The kids will remember the process and they can say they helped,” she said.
Other principals have asked Manzanares how they can get the RAW Project to help beautify their buildings, while Sykes said there have been preliminary talks with Netflix about highlighting the RAW Project and the schools involved.
A school assembly featured time-lapse photos to show how each mural was painted, Sykes added.
“It’s fun to watch the different ages react,” she said. “The pre-kindergarten kids were running up and touching each one because they were just so colorful. The older kids asked the artists things like how they make the eyes look so real. And the teachers turn every opportunity into a learning moment. The artists want to give back and when they see how the kids interact with their painting, the satisfaction is so worthwhile.”
Manzanares added the playground seems to be used more often on weekends.
“Art brings people together and one thing we learned from this is to include everyone in our community,” she said. “We’re just thrilled that everyone seems to love this project as much as we do.”