Thing of Beauty

Vice-principal's mural project erases graffiti by reclaiming wall as canvas for school pride

Earl McRae

So I'm walking along a path back of Woodroffe High School, as I sometimes do, and glance over at the west-side brick wall, as I always do, to take in the latest mess from the anonymous graffiti/tagging "artists" who've long been defiling it - and my eyes behold not the sorry yesterdays, but the promising tomorrows. They see a thing of beauty.

They see the imaginative solution in the city's high school wars against those who come in the night and release their immaturities and irresponsibilities through the nozzles of spray cans. They see the vision of a man named Richard King, a vice-principal at Woodroffe High School.

They see psychology: That if artistic beauty is created, those who see it, those in the night with their spray cans - some from this very school - will be admiring, respectful, and discerning of the concentrated effort that went into the greater accomplishment, and put away their weapons. And they have.

The hope is that pride of school will grow in souls bereft of it. And it has. Through a mural.

A pristine mural nine feet high and 150 feet long informally and simply named Woody Character Mural spans the red-brick west wall of the school where graffiti/tagging once reigned. It depicts a series of wonderfully rendered painted faces of different ethnicities symbolizing the cultural diversity of the 880-student population that represents, including Canada, some 60 countries of origin.

At the left end of the mural is the face of a girl blowing dandelion petals along the length of its blue-sky upper half, and the petals are in the form of words, and the words say "optimism" and "integrity" and "perseverance" and "empathy" and "respect" and "co-operation" and "acceptance" and "fairness" and "responsibility" and "appreciation" - the 10 character words that are part of the Ottawa-Carleton School Board's education program.

Across the lower half of the mural are more words - "truth" and "knowledge" and "peace" and "joy" and "compassion" and "pride" and "honour" and "hope" and "faith" and "enthusiasm" and "patience" and "care" and "life" and "freedom" and "valour." Words and faces of inspiration in the reclaiming of Woodroffe High School's west wall from the infidels, the strategy of Richard King, former art teacher, having begun late in May when he decided to seek mural proposals from the students and 80-member staff.

"It generated a lot of enthusiastic discussion between staff and the students. There was tagging and graffiti on a regular basis on that wall because of its isolated location." With not much time to receive and process ideas before the summer holiday, King - with the strong blessing of principal Renald Cousineau - came up with the concept himself, work to start at the fall beginning of the new school year.

"My wife and I came one Saturday evening with a projector and traced the outline of the faces on the wall with magic markers. I filled the faces in with numbers where and how the colours would go. It was kind of paint by numbers."

Through the largesse of the school board and Woodroffe's parent council - about $1,000 - paint was purchased along with clear anti-graffiti sealer ("It costs the board a lot of money each year to remove graffiti from the schools"), paint brushes, and paint rollers.

"It was a real, spirited, community project. Teachers, students, families of teachers, families of students, all painting. We did it in less than four days." His dad Lionel and mom Jackie joined in.

It hasn't stopped with the mural. Every Friday, staff members wear black and white T-shirts made right in the school by students, each shirt with a different word of inspiration on the front, its definition on the back, the shirts so popular that many of the students want to wear them, too, and plans are afoot.

"We're getting calls from other schools interested in the mural idea, and our T-shirts. The mural is such a success that we're considering other areas of the school for next spring, maybe this time a student's design."

Project Pride. What else can you say except - beautiful.

Originally published in The Ottawa Sun 2 October 2008. Reprinted with permission.