For young artists at Westminster High School, their campus has become their canvas.
In recent years, students here have adorned three of the school’s exterior walls with expressive murals, each employing a different artistic style and its own distinct theme. Their most recent installation is a tribute to Sylvia Mendez, whose family successfully challenged school segregation in this city more than 70 years ago.
Splashed across a blue facade are vibrant images bursting with symbolism. Mendez is depicted as a young girl with books at her back, gazing up at colorful lanterns that signal hope for the future. A few feet away, a regal lion — Westminster High’s mascot — conveys courage and strength. There’s also a Buddha, a majestic crane, Folkloric dancers and a large orange tree bearing fruit.
“Atmosphere is everything,” art teacher Daina Anderson said. “Providing a stimulating environment promotes learning. Then there’s also (Sylvia Mendez’s) story that goes back into history, prior to me or any of these kids. It makes them feel like there was someone here fighting for them in the beginning, and a lot of their rights were secured by her and her family.”
Anderson said she was first motivated to bring art to the campus by a Montreal-based group known as En Masse, which pulls together divergent artists to create large black-and-white drawings packed with intricate details. At Anderson’s invitation, En Masse traveled all the way to Westminster in 2015 to collaborate on a mural in its signature style, repurposing a prominent wall toward the front of the school.
Two years later, Anderson and her students partnered with another highly regarded artist, Minjae Lee of South Korea. Students raised $3,000 to fly Lee out to California, and together they created a mural that reflected the school’s heterogeneous student body. It’s made up of large portraits of students who attended Westminster High and were selected through a raffle.
The latest creation, “Unity in Diversity,” was inspired by an appearance Sylvia Mendez made to the campus in March of 2018.
“We were blown away by her story,” she said.
At the time, Anderson’s students happened to be learning about a realist painter named Michael Parkes, who was born in America but now lives in Spain. Hoping to emulate his style, they contacted him directly. Although Parkes wasn’t able to make the trip, he was happy to assist with the project via Skype, offering guidance on such aspects as composition and negative space.
Meanwhile, Westminster’s students came up with design ideas, which were put to a vote. About 180 people later worked on the wall over the course of four weeks, including former students and staff.
“It’s moving because you see students not only participating in the ideas behind it,” WHS Assistant Principal John Bennett said, “but you also see them helping to create the artwork, working with artists. And to have someone like Sylvia Mendez represented on our campus is meaningful to us because of what she and her family stand for.”
Senior Michelle Lee Vu helped paint the orange tree, the flowers and a young Sylvia Mendez.
“I didn’t know the story before,” Vu said. “It kind of opened my mind — like, ‘Wow, that happened so recently.’”
“The majority of symbolism in (the mural) is mostly freedom, diversity and enlightenment,” she added, “and I just love it.”
Senior Carlos A Garcia, 17, said he didn’t have much experience working with acrylic paints. Nevertheless, he called dibs on the lion.
“It was one of the things I wanted to work on,” he said. “For me, I wanted to work on the key symbol of our school.”
There are still more open canvases at Westminster High, and the school is already planning a fourth mural after securing a grant from Vans through the Americans for the Arts program. Only 10 schools and educational organizations qualified nationally as Vans Custom Culture Grantees.
Anderson said she’s not sure what imagery will make its way to the campus this time, but she said she would like to involve classes that serve students with special needs, and she has already selected an outside artist — Tory Elena.
“I want students to leave their legacy,” Anderson said. “I want them to experience public art, and I want them to have the opportunity to collaborate with contemporary artists.”