Junior Samie Johnson works on South's new mural

Junior Samie Johnson works on South's new mural


If you’re spending your summer indoors, atop a scaffold, your neck bent for hours at a time and your hand sore from gripping a paintbrush, who wouldn’t like a little company?
So those creating a huge new mural at South High School, 3131 19th Av. S., are encouraging the public to stop by to watch their work.
It’s the second big mural project at South, covering an entire stairwell, as its predecessor in another stairwell did six years earlier. This 1,700-square-foot version tries to encapsulate seven constitutional principles in a way that represents their views on what democracy looks like from south Minneapolis in the 21st century.
The project employs three professional muralists, Gustavo Lira, Shannon McEvoy and South alumna Greta McLain, who oversee the work of two dozen South students who are giving up good chunks of their summers to paint for six hours a day.
“They’re in all the way,” said South art teacher Denny Sponsler, the glue binding the project. “This is their mural and they know it.”
Rapper Brother Ali, portrayed in the mural (background) spoke with South students about his democratic activism Staff photos by Steve Brandt

Rapper Brother Ali, portrayed in the mural (background) spoke with South students about his democratic activism Staff photos by Steve Brandt

Rapper Brother Ali, who is depicted in the mural, stopped by the other day for a look and to chat with students about his involvement with grassroots forms of democracy such as the Occupy movement. “Justice never happens because you ask for it,” he told them. “It happens because people demand it.”
Sponsler arranged the donation of 20 gallons of Valspar paint, lined up scaffolding, and coordinated the classroom discussions on democracy that led to the artistic concepts that sprawl across the mural.
He loves having the canvas of a stairwell for students to work with because students move through the design as they use the stairwell, creating a dynamic interaction with the mural. Unlike the earlier mural, this stairwell doesn’t have an elevator shaft preventing a panoramic view of the mural.
That first mural led to this one. Sponsler said Principal Cecilia Saddler encouraged the idea, and an anonymous donor gave the school’s nonprofit foundation $10,000 for Sponsler to do a second mural. The district's arts for academic achievement program also provided money.
The design combines dominant figures ranging from Ali to Lady Liberty to a hand marking a ballot with smaller touches, such as faces painted from photographs of students in classrooms. There’s an image from a 1930s photo of a black man tied to a tree, symbolic of times when constitutional rights have been violated.
The first mural was populated by figures who have loomed large in social justice movements, from Mahatma Gandhi to Emiliano Zapata to Paul Wellstone.
“This one’s going to be more controversial," Sponsler said. "That’s OK. It’s a learning environment. It’s about the students envisioning what they want in a free society as they come of age.”
The painting begins with sepia tones, then washes add color, and each image eventually gets three to six layers of acrylic paint. “I’ve been doing art my whole life, but never on such a scale,” said junior Samie Johnson, who got involved as one of Sponsler’s ceramics students.
Ali got in the mural because a history student was impressed by the rapper’s efforts to shape power relationships within a democratic system. Ali credited Congressman Keith Ellison’s efforts on behalf of social justice with helping him get started in his profession. When lawyer Ellison years ago sued the police department on behalf of a friend of Ali’s and won a settlement, the friend gave Ali money to make his demo CD.
Dressed in a black polo shirt, camou shorts and sneakers, Ali told the group: “You guys can add a lot—just being young and smart and creative.”
The muralists are painting from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily, and expect to finish by the end of the first week in August. Others involved are Johnson, Alec Trelstad, Lamia Abkhadri, Elliot Bosveld, Angelo Kelvakis, Shana Crawford, Marisa Skelley, Daisy Whitney, Quinn Lee, Raven Catarra, Hamsa Aziz,  Shamus Hawley, Gabe Stellar, Brian Noyed , Tessa Belo, Mose McLain, Sinjun Strom, Gustavo Ruiz, Jack Riggins, Eva McCauley, Cayla Roberts, Meg Ruddy, Eleanor Noble, and Carson Backhus.  

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