Art That Transformed A Miami Neighborhood Now Making Its Schools Cool

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The walls at Eneida Hartner Elementary are now covered in art, including murals by Dutch artist duo Pipsqueak was here!!! and Holland-based David Junelouf.

Every December, Miami's annual Art Basel fair draws artists, dealers and buyers from around the world. This year, dozens of artists could be found not in galleries or at cocktail parties, but painting at an elementary school.

Spanish painter Marina Capdevila was one of more than 30 artists working at Eneida Hartner Elementary School in Miami's Wynwood neighborhood.

Her cartoon-style painting of elderly women doing water aerobics is intended, she says, to get the kids to smile. "Always I'm trying to, when I do murals, to bring a little of my sense of humor to make people laugh," she says.

Over the last decade, Miami's Wynwood neighborhood has been revitalized by art. Galleries, restaurants and artists' studios have moved in. Walls throughout the area are now covered in murals and Wynwood has become a tourist destination. Now, Eneida Hartner Elementary is getting in on the action.

By the end of last week, dozens of artists in Miami for Art Basel had contributed work decorating the walls at the school. Local artists worked alongside internationally known muralists including Axel Void and Shepard Fairey. The school's playground is now overseen by a smiling group of chimpanzees by the Dutch artist Pipsqueak was here!!!.

It's all part of RAW, Reimagining the Arts in Wynwood, a project organized by Robert de los Rios. It aims to bring to the schools some of the art that now covers walls in the rest of the neighborhood. "Wynwood for years, it's been painting walls and boutiques and restaurants, which is all great," de los Rios says. "But if we have an opportunity to help a local institution where our children are raised, why not?"

De los Rios and a partner first brought their project two years ago to another nearby school. Today, 86 murals cover the walls at Jose de Diego Middle School. The art there has had a tangible impact.

"Students now feel that this is a place that they really want to be in. They take pride in their school. They take pride in the environment," says the school's principal, April Thompson-Williams. She says the school has been able to retain many of the students who used to leave for private or charter schools. Miami-Dade's school district has stepped up as well, funding new engineering and art magnet programs at the school. Together they've helped boost enrollment and contributed to higher test scores — and it all started with the art covering the school's walls.

Artists are hoping to have a similar impact at Eneida Hartner Elementary. On a wall between two classrooms last week, Paulie Nassar was painting a large purple jellyfish, mostly using spray cans. Nassar works a lot with young people. He's part of a nonprofit that puts young graffiti artists to work doing street art.

Working at the school gave him a chance to interact with some of the students, and while he was painting, he turned around and had 15 or 20 kids watching. He said that one walked up to him and said, "You're using a skinny tip," a type of spray can nozzle used for fine detail. Nassar was taken aback. "I was like, 'OK, you're seven, how do you know this? But cool that you know it.' He's like, 'I prefer fat caps.' And he just walks away," Nassar says, "This is why we're here doing this."

Miami's Wynwood neighborhood is in some ways a case study in gentrification. Many of the neighborhood's long-time residents would never consider going into some of the galleries, restaurants and boutiques that are now common here. That's one reason Derick McKoy, Eneida Hartner's principal, was eager to bring de los Rios' RAW project to his school. He says it's a way to begin including his students in the neighborhood's artistic life. McCoy says some of his students come from six shelters and are homeless.

"These are students that are displaced. They don't have a place of their own," McKoy says. "To have those children have access to this is what really touches my heart the most." At Eneida Hartner Elementary School, the project is already having an impact. McCoy says for his students now, art is cool.

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