A year after a mural celebrating diversity was removed from inside a South Slope school, it has been reborn.
The sprawling 60-foot painting, now at home above PS 295’s schoolyard, received its finishing touches on Aug. 24 — but it’s been a long journey for the school community to bring back its mural.
“This is a symbolic success,” said Elton Ueoka Dodson, executive director of the Mural Justice Project and a member of its school leadership team. “There was anger, hurt, resentment when they took down the mural. It was heartbreaking mostly for the students. [This] proves the power of community organizing around inspired student expression.”
The mural’s story began last school year, when six then-fifth graders teamed up with teaching artist Lexy Ho-Tai of Groundswell, an organization focused on creating community-inspired murals around New York City. With the question about what sort of future they want as their guide, the students — now rising seventh graders — came up with a mural inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and LGBTQ+ rights. It even included a quote from the Black lesbian poet Audre Lorde: “Your silence will not protect you”.
“It was such a joy to do,” Ho-Tai said. “We met biweekly for 14 weeks and there were different themes to highlight, and I was collaging their idea.”
The mural was put together and placed over the school’s cafeteria doors, but, within just three days, it was taken down. The Daily News reported at the time that then-principal Lisa Pagano and Frank Giordano — the principal of MS 443, whose school shares the same building and cafeteria as PS 295 — had expressed dissatisfaction over the mural and even rejected some parts of it.
Giordano was said to have felt “attacked” by Lorde’s quote and Pagano expressed in an email that she would have preferred “Hate has no home here” over images indicating “Black Trans Lives Matter.” Some parents also reportedly felt that not all of the school’s children were represented in the artwork.
The mural’s deconstruction before most of the school community had even seen it kicked off a year-long journey of reconciliation, healing and, ultimately, the restoring of the artwork.
Former city councilmember Carlos Menchaca helped fund the project with Groundswell, and explained that he knew the mural would be “powerful” and never questioned the thought process going into it.
“It was an incredible violation,” he told Brooklyn Paper. “The kids were asking, ‘Why was it being taken down?’”
Doug Hecklinger, whose two students took part in the project, explained there was little communication about why the mural was taken down and even the principal seemed uninterested in talking about it.
“Lisa Pagano didn’t tell anyone,” he said “She was like, ‘No dwelling on the past and ‘let’s move forward.’”
For many, moving forward meant investigating the takedown — and for some parents, it meant considering a change of schools. PS 295 is also known as The Studio School of Arts and Culture. On its website, administration states that the school has a “deep commitment to the arts.”
After the mural debacle, almost 30 families say they considered taking their children out of the school
A special investigation by the Department of Education eventually found that the two principals violated the department’s anti-discrimination rules. The DOE had also investigated School District 15’s long-serving Superintendent Anita Skop for her alleged involvement in the artwork’s destruction, but the investigation found Skop had not violated any rules.
“Anita Skop became a public enemy,” Dodson said. “People were asking, ‘Why did this happen under your watch?’ But she gave the most sincere compassion to the educators and administrators and participated in the healing process. She got the funding for this.”
“This is a symbol of the DOE supporting equity work,” Hecklinger said of the reborn mural. “It’s an in-your-face gesture to Pagano. It’s really helpful and it will push us to new grounds of authentic work. We’ve gone through this and no faking it; it’s going to push us ahead.”
Menchaca believes this moment will give PS 295’s students a lesson in democracy.
“It leads to more action and conversation,” he says. “Kids can have a power, a vision of the future, a voice.”
Skop, however, did not get to see the project’s rebirth come to fruition. She stepped down as superintendent in late June after Chancellor David Banks did not rehire her following the changes he made to the role, including having all superintendents reapply for their jobs. Dodson says the district’s new superintendent, Rafael Alvarez, has been honoring all of Skop’s agreements in getting the mural redone, including jumping through whatever bureaucratic hoops stood in the way.
“We look forward to continuing the great work that was already started in this district,” Alvarez said in a statement to Brooklyn Paper. “We want every student to know that their voice matters and their creativity is valued.”
Pagano is also not returning to the school in September. The former principal of PS 295 has been assigned to another school and her replacement is Valerie Vanderpuij, who said she was thrilled to be part of the school’s community and called the restored mural “beautiful.”
“Our community is all about arts and art education,” she said. “I’m proud that PS 295 created [the mural]. There will always be challenges and we’ll get through it. I’m happy to see student voices elevated.”
Also elated to see the project be reborn is Ho-Tai, the teaching artist who helped bring the original mural to life. On Wednesday, she worked to put finishing touches on the new piece, painting the shading and minor details with a paintbrush.
“It was really surreal,” she said of the saga. “Like, ‘is this happening?’ I’m really excited for this product. I’m very proud, and it is emotional to recreate.”