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Picturing diversity

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When Jeremy Del Rio brought his son, Judah, to PS 102 last year as a transfer student, he was immediately struck by the diversity in the school.

“The instructional signs for new families were printed in a dozen languages, validating the importance of the many cultures at PS 102,” he said. Del Rio embraced the idea of community among the different ethnic groups in the student body. Later that year, when scaffolding that had been covering the schoolyard came down, he saw the opportunity to transform the newly exposed brick wall from a blank canvas into something special.

Del Rio met with the director or The Storefront Art Center, Paul Curtis, and the school’s arts committee to discuss bringing his vision to life: an 875-square-foot public mural in the schoolyard, which faces 71st Street between Third Avenue and Ridge Boulevard. Local artist Sam Wisneski, and his team from the Storefront, joined the project and the creative journey began.

PS 102 Principal Theresa Dovi welcomed the concept wholeheartedly introducing the idea of the public art mural to the school’s families early in the year, and invited them to answer the question: “How does your family welcome guests into your home?”

In response, students submitted a variety of drawings, photos, writings and belongings. The arts committee received more than 100 submissions that reflected the wide range of cultures, customs and traditions at the Bay View School. Judah submitted one of his favorite quotes: “A stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you and you shall love him as yourself.”

Curtis and Wisneski helped the arts committee sift through the contributions — flags, pinatas, Arabic tea sets, family photos, pictures of the Taj Mahal, drawings of the earth, beloved toys, and a variety of writings — to identify overall themes to inform the mural. The artists designed a narrative mural consisting of nine panels, each telling a part of a story about a young boy being welcomed into a new community by a culturally-diverse group of people. He is first greeted by a classmate who introduces him to a larger student body, part of a diverse neighborhood, within a global city, in an interconnected world.

The kind, simple gesture sets the picture in motion, guiding the eye through a vibrant celebration of respect, acceptance, sharing and love. That sentiment is echoed in words of greeting, spelled out in 43 different languages on the wall, some written on the sidewalk in chalk, others on building marquees and walls, and still others waving from colorful banners.

The project of transferring the mural to the brick surface was slated to cover a six-week period, beginning with a party on April 30 to prepare the wall. Nearly 400 volunteers — young and old, experts and novices — signed up to paint. After the veteran artists plotted a grid and sketched the design with charcoal, the full team of painters began defining the outline in black paint, adding flat color, then highlights, and finally, the details.

“Why is Mrs. Dovi painting the wall?” asked students, who noticed that even after a long day of work in the school, the principal rolled up her sleeves to add her artistic touch.

“In a time when arts and arts education are being threatened,” Dovi explained, “PS 102 is demonstrating how important they are, not only to our students while they’re here with us, but also to everyone in our community as they continue through their lives.”

In addition to PS 102 parents, students, teachers and staff, Bay Ridge residents participated in the project, including neighborhood organizations, congregations, youth groups, businesses, and non-profits. They collaborated to create beauty in a barren space — they painted a visual reminder to celebrate and value diversity. The mural serves as a reflection of the neighborhood.

That message was also eloquently expressed in words on the blog set up to chronicle the mural’s creation: “Sam and the mural organizers welcomed me to the team even though I thought I had very little to offer, and they empowered me to feel like my contribution made a difference.”

On June 4, approximately 1,500 people came out to celebrate the completion of the mural. The party began with a musical performance by parent Zafer Tawil playing the laud, a pear-shaped, stringed instrument typically used in North African and Middle Eastern music. Councilman Vincent Gentile (D–Bay Ridge) and Community Education Council Principal Laurie Windsor joined Dovi and the arts committee for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. The crowd cheered as Wisneski said the mural’s mission is to inspire not only the people who worked on it, but the people who walk by and see it as well.

Third grader Gauri Purohit, who joined her mother to paint after school and on the weekends, read a letter she wrote to Dovi, Wisneski and the volunteers, thanking them for the opportunity to create art with each other and for each other. After the ceremony, the party officially began. It was as if the characters in the mural came to life and jumped out to play, dance, eat and share the day. The scene reflected one of Dovi’s favorite sayings: “All children laugh in the same language.”

When new and returning students enter PS 102 this month, they will receive a warm and colorful welcome, just as Del Rio and his family felt at home in a community of different cultures on their first visit to the school.

As 10-year-old Purohit’s letter observed, “It was a great idea to paint the mural, because now both the new and old students feel more welcome. The new kids can admire the mural and say, ‘This is a great school!’ The old kids can say, ‘Oh, hey! I helped paint that!’ ”

Laura Varoscak-DeInnocentiis is a teacher and freelance writer. She is a contributor to Family Publications and has won editorial awards from Parent Publications of America. She holds master’s degrees in writing, education and psychology. She lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and is the proud mom of two sons, Henry and Charlie. Visit her web page (www.examiner.com/parenting-in-new-york/laura-varoscak) for more articles on parenting.

Updated 4:30 pm, July 9, 2018
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