The flags of eight countries hang just inside the front doors to Horizon High School in Hamtramck. Representing the student body of the half “alternative,” half ESL (English as a Second Language) school, the flags of Albania, Bangladesh, Bosnia, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Yemen, and the United States proudly greet visitors. All eight of these flags are being incorporated into the school’s new mural, which is scheduled to be unveiled March 5.
Bits and pieces of fluffy pink Styrofoam litter the second-story classroom. Six students diligently and silently scrape sandpaper across large, thin pieces of the Styrofoam sheets, creating the pink “snow” which settles onto hair, clothing, the table and, eventually, the floor. Instructor Nivek Monét uses a small serrated saw to carve the boards, producing a piercing whine as the metal rubs against the Styrofoam.
Sayla Bulbuli, 15, smiles slyly and warns, “Don’t cut your hand!”
The students are working after school with Monét to create the mural, which will hang in the school’s main hallway. Planning began in November, and every week a number of students show up from 3:30 to 5 p.m. Monday and Wednesday to work on the project.
Two pieces of Masonite combine to make the background of the 4-foot-by-16-foot mural. The Styrofoam board, which Monét got from the Parade Company, is already split into three pieces. They are carved into the shape of letters spelling “HORIZON,” with some letters overlapping one another. The students smooth the edges, and gather the pieces in front of the Masonite to demonstrate what the finished project will look like. They pose in front of the unfinished mural for the photographer, who wants to stand on the table to get a better shot of the students.
“You can do that; it’s the art room!” says Monét.
For the most part, the students work quietly. They etch into the Styrofoam with sandpaper, smoothing out the lines and straightening the edges. Primer is painted on to seal the Styrofoam, and a joint compound will be used to smooth it, followed once more by primer and, finally, paint. Monét says the students are anxious to begin painting the letters. Each of the seven letters in “HORIZON” will be painted to represent one of the international flags unfurled above the front door of the school building.
“If anything, they’ve been waiting to paint their flag,” says Monét.
The Stars and Stripes is depicted in the background of the mural and is painted directly onto the board. The Styrofoam letters will be attached to the Masonite, and will rest on the American flag. The letters lead the eye through the mural, to the right side of the board onto which a street, mountains, and of course, a horizon will be painted.
Although Monét is a professional muralist, he does not push the students. He guides when necessary, but allows them to use their own creativity. The students were the designers, and various stages of their efforts are hung around the room. Monét watches the students carefully, and occasionally interrupts their work to show them a different technique. He smiles.
“It’s not often that I can stand by and watch the work get done,” he says.
Monét is working with Horizon High School through the Community Arts Partnership (CAP) program at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. The program was made possible at Horizon partly through efforts of Susan Casadei, a social worker at the school.
Casadei initiated the program because of the limited electives available for students, and to help expose them to art.
“I really wanted to start incorporating some of that,” says Casadei, who praises Monét for his work with the students.
Occasionally, students have problems making commitments to the different aspects of school, and yet they have managed to make a commitment to this after-school program.
“Nivek’s been wonderful,” Casadei says. “There’s a connection there, and that’s the biggest thing.”
Immediately after this mural is finished, Monét and the students will begin work on a larger one for Horizon’s cafeteria. Monét plans to take the students to the library to begin research on the community and the school to create a thought-provoking community piece.
The students working on the mural have volunteered for the project, and they work as a team. The relationship the students have with Monét is one of mutual respect. Monét often commends the students for a job well done, and rarely makes a suggestion without preceding the comment with praise.
Sayla smiles as she points out the stripes in the American flag that she has painted, and announces, “I want to be an artist like Mr. Nivek.”Rachel McIntyre is an editorial intern at Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org