Bronx Students Transform Carmen Herrera Artwork into Public School Mural

Isaac Kaplan
Jun 13, 2017 6:46PM

Photo by Isaac Kaplan.

This past Saturday, a group of some six middle schoolers gathered at M.S. 244 in the Bronx to paint a mural. Wanda Cano, an 11th grader who works with the nonprofit Publicolor, addressed the younger students.

“Are you guys ready to paint?” she asked.

“Yes!” they shouted in unison.

“What are you painting?”

“A mural!”

“By who?”

Carmen Herrera!”

Indeed, the students had assembled—on a sunny Saturday no less—to paint a mural based on the esteemed, 102-year-old artist’s 1952 work Untitled. Organized and overseen by Publicolor—a nonprofit founded to creatively engage at-risk students—the creation of the geometric, black-and-white painting began on June 10th and will be completed after a second day of work on June 17th.

The mural comes after Publicolor took students in its program to see the artist’s solo exhibition at the Whitney, “Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight,” last year. But the Whitney remains inaccessible and distant for many of those who attend M.S. 244. So there is something “quite magical about leaving an artwork in the school for the students to see in a daily basis,” said Ruth Lande Shuman, Publicolor’s founder. “In the end, all of this speaks about respect. It’s honoring humanity, it’s honoring the best in us.”

Carmen Herrera, Untitled, 1952. Courtesy of Publicolor.


This isn’t the first Publicolor project at M.S. 244, an arts-driven public school. “The kids took ownership of the building,” said the school’s principal Eduardo Mora, pointing to a previous partnership with the nonprofit that saw students painting the hallway doors in bright colors. “This is amazing,” he said, enthused about the reality of Herrera’s work permanently appearing on a wall just outside the school’s auditorium.

Herrera, too, embraced the project. “It is a joy for me that my work will be in a public school and even more so that it will be actually painted by the students,” the artist told the New York Times in a statement.

The nuts and bolts of the project are being overseen by Publicolor’s Natasha Seng, who trained as an industrial designer. The wall at M.S. 244 slated for the mural is corrugated—a challenge due to  Herrera’s geometric compositions, which plays with optical illusion. So, to ensure that the mural would appear true to the original, students painted onto MDM Board, which was measured and cut to fit the size of the wall. “It’s a little tricky,” Seng admitted.

On Saturday, the students practiced painting Herrera’s work on pieces of paper before turning to the massive slabs of MDM Board. The first step focused on painting the white background. Next weekend, the students will gather again to paint the geometric black design over the white surface. Then, the boards will be mounted for parents, teachers, and students of M.S. 244 to see.

Photo by Isaac Kaplan.

The work is a small part of Publicolor’s wider goal to create what Shuman calls a “community museum”—a collection of wall paintings and works of art spread across schools in the city. Though the city is replete with cultural institutions which often showcase world-renowned artwork, those spaces are often removed from the communities served by Publicolor.

Publicolor engages roughly 130 at-risk students in three or more days of activities per week, over the course of four to six years (and there are 132 students the program is in touch with who are in college). The nonprofit also hosts painting programs that reach hundreds more students. In 2015, the organization helped create a Sol LeWitt mural (Herrera is the first living artist they’ve used as a source) at Chelsea’s High School of Fashion Industries. But the organization has also enabled arts projects that aren’t tied to any one single artist—including painting bridges, NYCHA buildings, and hundreds of public schools.

Shuman emphasized that all of their work “recognizes the importance that visual beauty plays in our life,” which that many of the students Publicolor engages with don't get to experience on a regular basis. “It’s something many of us take for granted. But it’s food for the soul.”

Isaac Kaplan