The Stuart Street Mural Saga

The Stuart Street Mural Sagamural-full

The blank concrete wall, 1987

The beginning: 1987
When Willard’s new school building opened in 1980, the Stuart Street wall was bare concrete. In the mid-1980s, Willard art teacher Mary Spivey got together with muralist Malaquias Montoya to plan a mural for the wall. Montoya’s College of Arts and Crafts students worked with Spivey’s art students to create a design, and the mural was completed in 1987.

The “dogs of war” portion of the mural

Almost from the beginning, the eastern end of the mural, known as the “mechanical dogs of war,” was a subject of controversy. The image, inspired by the popular cartoon series Transformers, presents a grim portrait of a dystopian future. It was not universally loved by neighbors, and as the mural faded and degenerated over time, it became increasingly unpopular with students. By the fall of 2008, complaints about this section of the Stuart Street mural were so numerous that it had become a permanent item on the student government’s monthly agenda.

Western end of mural
A new plan: 2009
Finally, in January 2009, student representative Guthrie Kornbluth introduced a motion to investigate the possibility of replacing the eastern portion of the wall with a new design. Willard’s student government decided to address the problem by commissioning a new design for the eastern half of the wall, one that would present a more positive welcome for those entering the school. Seventh-grader Zoë Yi came up with an intricate, rainbow-colored drawing that symbolized the diversity of our community, combining an urban landscape with a series of trees that represented the renewal of culture through the flower of its youth. The student government enthusiastically approved the design.

Jumping through hoops: 2009-2015
Now they needed to get the approval of the original artist, the Willard Neighborhood Association, the Willard staff and PTA, and the BUSD school board. This was no small undertaking. The school administration had already failed in an earlier attempt to remove the damaged and faded mural, due to the complex rules governing murals and public art. To begin with, all existing murals were considered to be the intellectual property of the muralists, and could not be altered or removed without their consent. Furthermore, the district had placed a moratorium on any new painted murals because of the cost of maintenance. On top of that, schools were required to obtain permission and consent from all stakeholders, including our Willard neighbors, before making any changes to a mural. Willard’s student governing body made a plan to tackle these obstacles one at a time.

2009 design by student Zoë Yi

The students’ original idea was to transfer the design to large ceramic tiles, painted by Willard art students and fired ten at a time in Willard’s small kiln. While this would be relatively expensive and time consuming, one great advantage of tile was that it would not need to be maintained and it would retain its color despite the wall’s southern exposure. The student committee found a local ceramic store that sold large, high-quality bisque squares at an affordable price, and calculated that it would take them five years to paint, glaze and fire the tiles in Willard’s small kiln, at a relatively modest cost of $15,000. The plan was soon approved by the Willard community. Now they needed the endorsement of the creators of the mural, the school board, and the neighbors.

Muralist Malaquias Montoya eventually agreed to the new mural because he was impressed with the design and the persistence of the student committee. Former Willard art teacher Mary Spivey was happy to give her support, and art teacher Nancy Funk, who was hired in 2009, enthusiastically jumped on board with the project. Now the students had to get the approval of the Willard Neighborhood Association. The WNA patiently listened to the students’ presentation, then voted in favor of the project, on one condition: no public funds were to be used. All the money would have to come from private donations. Undaunted, the students accepted the conditions and went to make their case to the school board, which approved the project without discussion. Now all they had to do was find a way to raise $15,000.

A disastrous setback: 2012

The "trees" waiting to be assembled.
The “trees” waiting to be assembled.

The funding requirement made it necessary for the students to change their plans. They had planned to purchase all of the materials in advance, but now they could only afford to purchase tiles year by year as they went along. The student government and Willard PTA agreed to split the cost, and together they raised enough money to complete the first of five trees, with handprints from Willard’s class of 2009. Ongoing fundraising made it possible to continue this way for three years. By 2011, 120 square feet of tile, decorated with the handprints of three 8th grade classes, had been purchased, glazed and fired. Then in 2012 we received a shipment with many of the tiles warped, out of square and of inferior quality. We returned many of them and searched our supplier’s warehouse for enough usable substitutes to get us through another year’s production. It was not until the following year, when the school tried to order the final shipment of tiles for the last tree, that we learned the manufacturer had gone out of business. The reason for the previous year’s inferior tiles was that they had been selling off old seconds, trying to liquidate their inventory before selling the factory.

Now what? Our last class of 8th graders was graduating in June of 2013, and we had no tiles for them to put handprints on. At the last minute, with a lot of help from John Toki at Leslie Ceramics, we were able to locate a local artisan who agreed to make enough custom tiles for us to finish the last tree (the kids were applying glaze while the tiles were still warm). But he didn’t want to take on the task of making all the rest of the tiles for the mural, so we were out of options again. We spent the next year searching the country for a tile manufacturer who could make tiles for us at a price we could afford, with no luck. We were too far in to start from scratch, but we couldn’t go forward either. The project was falling apart, and it was beginning to look like maybe the students’ ambitious plan would never be completed.

Rachel Rodi saves the day

Volunteers turn out to construct the mosaic in summer 2016

Just when it seemed hopeless, we asked our friends at Malcolm X about their new mosaic murals, and that’s when we found out about local artist Rachel Rodi. After careful consideration, she suggested a modification to the design which could keep costs down. If we could solicit the help of 300 school and community volunteers to do the installation under her supervision, then she thought she could get it done for a fraction of the other estimates we’d been quoted. We jumped at the idea, of course. The students, parents, and staff loved the modified design, which included 50 ceramic masks made by this year’s art students, as well as a tribute to the Campanile, built in 1915.

The mosaic tile mural, completed August 2016
The mosaic tile mural, completed August 2016

What began as a wild idea in a student council meeting in the spring of 2009 is now part of Willard’s storied history, just in time for the school’s centennial. With any luck, it will remain for the next 100 years. We hope someday to find a way to restore the western portion of the mural.

We would like to thank the over 200 school and community volunteers who came out this summer to create our new ceramic tile mural on Stuart Street. Thanks also to the many families and community organizations whose generous donations funded the project, especially the Elmwood Café, Berkeley Craftsmen General Contractors, the Berkeley Rotary Club, Provident Central Credit Union, CSN Bay Area, the Lonely Island, the folks at Red Oak Realty, and the friends and family of Willard’s long time and much beloved art teacher, the late Mary Spivey. Many thanks also to mosaic muralist Rachel Rodi and her capable staff, whose skill, patience, and calm direction brought our community together to carry this project through to the end; and finally, to Zoë Yi, whose original design inspired us to carry on all these years, in the belief that her vision for a bright, expansive world for all children could finally be realized.