February 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Murals Making a Difference for Low-Income Students

Estria Miyashiro

Estria Miyashiro

Educators have probably been using art to teach students since the days of stone tablets. But today, in many schools, art has been taking a backseat to math, science, and language arts demands.

Estria Miyashiro is trying to lift art to the forefront—in a big way—through his work as the executive director of the Estria Foundation, a nonprofit that he cofounded.

Miyashiro’s environmental concerns led him to start the foundation with Jeremy LaTrasse in 2010. He wanted to do murals around the world related to water conservation. A monetary gift from a friend allowed him to get started, and the Estria Foundation and the Water Writes mural series was born.

Social change through art

The foundation is based in Honolulu, HI, and its mission is to foster social change through the creation of art. One of the organization’s biggest projects involves students creating large outdoor murals that focus on Hawaiian lyrics, or mele, which explore stories of place. These “Mele Murals” teach young people in Hawaii about their culture and historical heritage. The foundation works with elementary through college students.

The students join forces with artists and other members of the community to decide what should be depicted and how to approach it. Then they work with the artists to paint the mural.

Mele Murals Trailer from Oiwi TV on Vimeo.

Miyashiro, who is also a renowned muralist, says large pieces of art can transform and inspire a whole community. “Just painting outside in public, you get your art to interact with people in a way that it can’t inside of a room,” said Miyashiro. “When you have a gallery show, only so many people are going to make it into that gallery, but when you have a mural, the entire public can take it in.”

So how do you get students without any prior experience to grab a paintbrush or a spray can and work on such elaborate projects that will be publicly displayed? Through his work, Miyashiro has discovered that it’s not unusual to encounter students who don’t feel like they have the artistic talent to do it. As an educator, he has to figure out how to reach students where they are.

“You’ve got to make it fun and engaging,” says Miyashiro. “I think the bottom line is that we have to inspire young people. If the teacher has passion for what they’re doing, it’s infectious.”

Mike Tyau is an art teacher and a project manager for the foundation. He agrees that a big part of his work is convincing young people that they have the talent to create art. “People think that you’re either born an artist or you have to go to a technical school,” said Tyau. “I teach people that actually everybody is an artist. It’s just that some people have been doing it a little bit longer. It’s just a matter of time and practice.”

Tyau says making murals gives students a boost of confidence and a sense of accomplishment from creating something that’s based on their cultural identity.

“They finish projects that have to do with Hawaiian culture based on stories of where they live and stories about their families and stories about where they’re going to go later in life,” says Tyau. “They [start as] bored kids not knowing any direction in life. They come from lower-income families, mostly Micronesian, and they just know their two-block square radius of their neighborhood….[and become] these future storytellers or these future artists.”

If you’d like to include an art component in your library’s maker space or have your students work on a mural, Miyashiro recommends starting small. He says a space that’s eight to 10 feet in height and about 20 feet across is perfect for a first mural. He notes that there are ways to save on materials. For example, you may be able to ask for donations of leftover house paint. Also, it usually costs less to buy brushes from a hardware store rather than from an art store.

Miyashiro will be providing more insight into helping students create art during Library Journal and School Library Journal’s Maker Workshop, an online course, which begins on January 31.

marva_head_shotMarva Hinton is a contributing writer for Education Week and the host of the ReadMore podcast, a show that features interviews with authors, such as Nicola Yoon and Daniel José Older.



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