Des Moines school mural lets students 'see themselves'
By MELODY MERCADO
Des Moines Register
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) _ Four 30-foot metal panels donning children of color resembling characters from the famous American comic strip, ``Peanuts,'' welcomed students back to Harding Middle School for the start of the 2021-2022 school year Wednesday.
The mural, created by local artist Robert Moore, was commissioned by the school as a part of its Turnaround Arts program, which prioritizes arts education as a way to engage students in the classroom.
Moore, a Harding alum, had been seeking a way to engage students at his alma mater and, through the school's community block funds and community sponsorship, was able to bring what school officials say is ``a representational piece of art'' for students to see as they walk into school every day.
``Students need to see themselves as they walk into the building ... as they prepare their hearts, their souls and their minds for the educational experiences that they're coming into,'' said Cassie Kendzora, the former arts integration coach for the Turnaround Arts program.
The Des Moines Register reports that through a collaborative process with students in the school's Brother to Brother organization, an empowerment program for young boys of color, Moore and his collaborative partner, Dana Harrison, asked students who their inspirations were, both locally and internationally.
Students named famous athletes like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, but also local leaders of color like local state Reps. Ako Abdul-Samad and Ruth Ann Gaines, both Des Moines Democrats, and Edna Griffin, who was a civil rights pioneer in Des Moines, leading sit-ins and protests of a downtown core's drug store after being refused service there in July 1948 because she was African American.
Griffin later sued the store's owner, and the Iowa Supreme Court backed her claim, leading to a ruling that made it illegal to deny service based on race in Iowa.
From there, Moore used his signature style to morph their inspirations into four characters _ all children of color wearing Harding's school colors. Each character is unique, from their clothing and hair styles to their skin tone. Everything is purposeful.
``The hair is important through all those pieces _ hair is an identity in many Afro-African and Afro-Latino cultures,'' Moore said. ``It's an explosion of connection and understanding to the deep stories behind the textures and the hairstyles, because they aren't just designs ... there's diversity and variety, and so I wanted to do that, too, as well, with the different skin tones.''
The mural also has balances a range of interests and passions from academics and sports to the arts, Moore said. The left-most character has a fade in his hair, playing basketball in blue and orange shoes _ a homage to the late Kobe Bryant. It's balanced out by the character on the far right, who's wearing a purple tuxedo.
``It could have been theater, that could have been singing, or it could have been fashion. I was vey neutral intentionally,'' Moore said. ``The whole dress and outfit is a to pay on an acceptance of identity in all forms.''
The inner two panels are adaptations of a similar work by Moore, called ``Imagine a World; Brown Like Me'' _ a series of paintings where Moore reimagined students' favorite cartoons as people of color.
``The part that makes me the most proud is just imagining the buzz, the chatter, the smiles, the joy and the happiness that is brought for those students and those children when they can see themselves in those images,'' Moore said. ``They can see themselves on a big scale and they can dream big ... and they can see themselves in a cast that they haven't seen themselves (in) before.''
Moore, a self-taught artist who started painting in 2019 as a way to help recover from alcoholism and addiction, exploded into the art scene nationally last year with the sale of his first painting and the exposure of a temporary installation called ``Harvesting Humanity,'' which went viral for its projections of various Black Americans on silos in rural Iowa.
Although Moore's art has greatly increased in value, being collected by celebrities globally, he says the mural at Harding is his most meaningful project so far.
Not only did Moore attend Harding as a kid, his grandmother lived right across the street from the school. As his mother struggled with drug addiction, Moore's father stood in as an ``amazing single black dad'' and, while he worked two jobs, his grandmother helped raise him.
``My grandmother was the most important person in my life, right next to my dad. So just knowing that she was around and she looked at that building every day ... knowing that she would have been able to see, you know ... cartoons that represent us in an era that she probably enjoyed `Peanuts,' as well ... it's extra special,'' Moore said.
When asked what he thought his grandmother would say of the mural, Moore said she was a woman of few words, but when she spoke, it was intentional.
``If she said she loved it, that was important,'' Moore said. ``I think that's what she would have said ... `I love it, Bobby.' ''
Harding Middle School continues to be a positive memory for Moore, a space he said was filled with unity and community. He hopes the new mural will help continue to evoke those feelings _ not only for students of color, but also white students.
``This is my most meaningful work because, for one, it's public art, which gets the the most exposure, and because I think real art should make you feel some kind of way _ it should either disrupt you, bring you joy, create some provocative thought or emotion ... whether you like it or not,'' Moore said.
The mural is now the third Moore has completed, all of which are in Iowa, with one in the Highland Park neighborhood and the other in Iowa City.
By The Associated Press, Copyright 2019