The Big Picture Project is a Tides Center project aimed at art mentorship with at-risk youth, particularly those who use graffiti as their outlet. As professional artists, we recognize and encourage natural born talent in the completion of public art projects, encouraging participants to hold a higher vibration and make art without victims.

The Big Picture Project was contacted by Dewey Academy Principal, Hattie Tate, to lead a mural project to grace a building on campus housing it’s new “cyber-high” and vocational programs.

A Golden Opportunity

How can one describe Dewey Academy continuation high school in Oakland?

Oakland Unified School District is more famous for it’s challenges than it’s successes. It’s teachers are among the lowest paid in the country, budget crisis is a constant struggle as it deals with a $29,000,000 deficit and student intake is dominated by underprivileged urban single parent black/hispanic youth. Within this bleak educational environment, if you are a Oakland student who has exhausted all other venues and has earned the “problem student” label you may well end up at Dewey as a last chance.

A Dewey student may typically be a convicted offender on probation with a GPS anklet, come from a home where violence is common place, gang member, or teen Mother. They live in an unpredictable world where compassion is looked upon as weakness.

Beyond all this Dewey is golden. It’s staff are a dream team of professionals and provide security, hope, council and two hot meals, making it more of a home than most know elsewhere. I “get” what Hattie and her staff are doing and am proud for Tides and Big Picture to be a part.

“Survive & Thrive”

The cyber-high building was a “grey” block in every sense, tucked away across from the main campus it did little to inspire or excite the sprits of the students. It occupies a space where the only vantage point is from the road at an oblique angle and demanding a complicated technique called anamorphic perspective to achieve a convincing trompe l’oiel illusion at a particular “station point” as the viewer passes down the street. The colors also had to be gang neutral.

Ms. Tate wanted her war cry “Survive & Thrive” to be the subject of the mural and I worked with the students on a computer to model the words in 3d and establish a perspective “station point”.

I began the project with a walk through of the site and asking the crew to foresee any problems that we may encounter and giving formulas to estimate our materials. Most of the crew are “taggers” but some are “piecers” painting gorgeous eye popping works rather than the machine-gun scatter of tags and easily got their heads around the geometry and were genuinely excited by its concept.

My working style is to get the energy up and get a project bubbling like a chef’s kitchen, getting tasks assigned and helping or encouraging as needed… always moving towards an aiming point for that days session, but working with these youth was more of a challenge. They are reluctant to accept direction, are easily distracted and are quick to misconstrue a simple request or interaction as a personal threat. I find that the best way to deal with this is to find the groups natural leader and make him my deputy. By making him or her my “main Dude” or “crew chief” I redirect some of the tasks to the group through one of their own and this diffuses resistance to my direction.

The habitual wearing of ipod buds or “Saggin” (pants around the knees) are badges of street credibility and not given up without a fight, but are real safety issues when dealing with ladders and tools. Yet with a bit of humor and leg-pulling I even here manage to get compromise, making a big deal of lending one of the guys my own belt and going over how to use it. It broke any tension and the crew joked and laughed all afternoon.

Built to Last

As we completed the side of the building, the front of the building looked contrastingly shabby and with the irresistible enthusiasm and persuasion of Ms. Tate we completed the job by making a new marquee for the building in time for the ribbon cutting.

“DEWEY ACADEMEY” was designed in a classic art neuvaux font and cut from plywood before each letter was gilded and placed on a 24′ black background. Up there on the ladders with sweat and skinned knuckles, these guys bolted the very name of the school they rebel against and when done, they stepped back across the street to see it glinting in the Sun. They were a little quiet at first, no one wanted to break the spell they had just cast. They then looked at each other grinning, coming unglued with whoops and hi-fives.

I gathered them close. “Many years after you are all gone from Dewey this will still be here… we built it to last. You maybe will bring your own kids to see this and tell them the story of what we did here and what you have done since… You make sure that story is a good one to tell.”