With community’s help, Langston Hughes-inspired mural at New York Elementary nearing completion
photo by: Joanna Hlavacek
Outside, it’s overcast and gray. Inside the walls of New York Elementary School, it’s bright, light and filled with color.
A handful of students, guided by art teacher Julia Rose-Weston and with their mothers watching on, are busy Thursday morning dabbing their paint-covered fingertips onto a mural that’s very nearly completed.
The roughly 15-by-6-foot image depicts several landmarks from the childhood of Langston Hughes, the famous Harlem Renaissance writer who attended New York Elementary in his youth.
Connor Austin, who just finished fifth grade at New York, said he wanted to help with the mural after learning about the project earlier this year in his school’s Student Leaders club.
“I also wanted to just help out one last time and go back here one last time,” says Connor, who will be moving on to middle school in the fall.
Connor and his friend Grace Sanders, who donned her special “painting tiara” for the occasion, are among several current and former New York students to participate in painting the mural over the last few weeks. Most of the 20-plus volunteers have been students and their parents, says Rose-Weston, who was commissioned for the project by outgoing Principal Nancy DeGarmo.
DeGarmo, who officially retires this summer after 14 years at New York, wanted to leave behind a lasting gift for her students. The kids in the Student Leaders club, she told the Journal-World back in May, had also wanted to celebrate Hughes and his time in Lawrence. And so, the mural became a union of those ideas.
“I’m hoping that they, in time, feel a sense of connection to the New York neighborhood, to Langston Hughes, to these places where he spent a great deal of time in his childhood,” says Rose-Weston, the mural’s lead designer.
The inspiration for the mural came from a Hughes quote selected by DeGarmo: “I have discovered in life that there are ways of getting almost anywhere you want to go, if you really want to go.”
The mural depicts St. Luke AME Church, where Hughes and his grandparents were congregants, as well as the nearby house he grew up in (it’s still standing today) and the limestone barn that belonged to his aunt and uncle. There are also roads, a railway, a river, a cyclist and a trio of pedestrians crossing New York Street.
photo by: Image courtesy Julia Rose-Weston
The newer New York Elementary Building, at 936 New York St., is there, too. Near the top of the mural, stretching across the horizon, is a rainbow.
Rose-Weston says she wanted to show students all the “different ways that we can get to where we want to go.”
“The rainbow’s kind of that dream off in the distance that you want to get to,” she says.
The response to the project has been positive so far, Rose-Weston says, with people of varying ages and skill levels all getting involved. One of the mural’s biggest sponsors was Cottin’s Hardware, which donated $100 and several cans of unsold paint to the project. Private donations also figured in.
“It’s just been really cool. The response from people when they see the mural — their response (is), ‘Oh, really? I can paint on this?'” says Rose-Weston, who wanted to make the project accessible to younger kids.
She even enlisted her son, local artist Vincent Weston, to help draw and paint the figures. After graduating from Lawrence High School in May 2017, the 19-year-old is heading off to the Kansas City Art Institute in the fall.
Growing up in Lawrence, Weston never gave much thought to the murals he saw painted around town. He never imagined kids could have helped create them, he said.
Weston hopes the Langston Hughes mural will “inspire” students by showcasing their school’s support of the arts.
“The fact that the kids are a part of it makes it a little more special, too. You know, it’s not just (that) someone came in and painted a mural over the summer. It’s, ‘Look, the students here actually got to help with it,'” Weston says. “I think it’s a really cool project.”
Rose-Weston expects the mural to be completed by the end of July, with a dedication ceremony tentatively planned around the time classes resume in mid-August.