Manteca High School Mural Project

Incredible Kids, People
on March 19, 2006

In 1996, art teacher Kirt Giovannoni was fed up with the destructive and demoralizing graffiti that frequently appeared on the campus of Manteca (Calif.) High School. So he devised a plan—dubbed The Mural Project—to discourage and replace the unsightly spray-painted mess with student-painted re-creations of famous works of art.

Ten years later, The Mural Project has produced 128 murals—some as large as 8-feet-by-7-feet—at the Manteca (pop. 49,258) high school, where Edouard Manet’s 1866 masterpiece, The Fife Player, shares wall space with Andy Warhol’s 1962 cutting-edge Soup Cans. School groups and art lovers from throughout the state tour the eclectic collection. Best of all, graffiti has become a rarity and school pride is on the rise.

“We’re respected for the work we do on the murals,” says Mark Ryser, 18, a senior in Giovannoni’s advanced art class. “Usually, it’s an accident if a pencil mark shows up or a mural gets scuffed.”

Each year, Giovannoni, known to students as “Mr. G,” breaks his class into teams of three and assigns each a particular wall space in the school for their mural. That’s when the research begins.

“The kids interview the teachers whose rooms are near the proposed murals to get an idea of any special elements, like science or music, that should go into the selected picture,” says Giovannoni, 50, who’s been a teacher for 27 years. “Then they go through art history books, the senior students present a few of their ideas, and I’ll usually narrow the choices down to a final dozen that’s reviewed by school administrators.”

Next, Giovannoni and his teacher assistants clean the walls of the work area and create chalked grid lines to guide students as they transfer the work of art from its original scale to a mural.

“Working on the murals is just like having a job,” says Daniel Sanchez, 18, a senior who plans a career in fine art and graphic design. “We have a lot of room to express ourselves, and Mr. G really shows us how to push ourselves.”

Teams only have seven to eight weeks, working 55 minutes each school day, to finish their projects. If they procrastinate, pace themselves poorly or don’t learn to work together, the space is painted over—something that’s only happened twice, Sanchez says.

Taking original art and reproducing it on a large wall can be just as daunting as figuring out how to work with project teammates, says junior Trevor Neuner, 17. While his love of art leans toward commercial art and comic books, Neuner is taking in stride his team’s assignment of re-creating an oil painting of frothy ocean waves and boats by German artist Eugene Garin. And even though a crack in the school wall and a metal electrical box in his mural’s grid give Neuner pause, he’s already working them into the mural’s background.

It’s this flexibility, along with the chance to discover new elements—both in the art they’re reproducing and in themselves—that’s at the heart of Giovannoni’s program.

“The Mural Project gives the kids a test run of the real world, as once they’re on the teams, they can’t move out,” Giovannoni says. “If they have problems with each other in terms of the mural, they have a chance to work on communication and team-building, two skills I hope they take with them when they leave the class.”

Gayl Wilson, treasurer and a founder of the Manteca Mural Society, a nonprofit organization that commissions large paintings on the city’s downtown buildings, believes The Mural Project’s educational value reaches beyond the art students themselves.

“With all the TV and mass media teenagers watch, I don’t imagine they see much art,” Wilson says. “But the students who are just walking down the hall to math or biology get exposed to a huge amount and variety of art they might never see in their lifetime otherwise. Now that’s a cool thing to find here in Manteca!”