Cross Keys High School (CKHS) senior Alexandra Zambrano said she believed her school was beautiful on the inside, and she wanted to make it beautiful on the outside, too. Junior Christina Robinson wanted to tell a story of her school that was deeper than grades.
These pleas and many more from CKHS students were compiled and presented to DeKalb County School District officials in late 2017 as part of a proposal from students and Atlanta artist Yoyo Ferro to paint a mural on the side of the school. The CKHS mural proposal was part of a larger BuHi Walk initiative, a public art project to create a pedestrian infrastructure within the shopping plazas and parking lots along Buford Highway.
The BuHi Walk initiative was conceptualized during an urban planning study for Buford Highway and formalized during the 2017 Living Walls Conference, where artists such as Ferro were paired with such community partners as Cross Keys High School.
Ferro began working in class with Cross Keys students in August as they drew “blind-contour” portraits of themselves. A blind contour portrait means the artist draws without looking at the paper, often resulting in imperfect, almost abstract results.
“If you’re drawing without looking, it’s not going to be perfect,” Ferro said. “By the middle of the exercise, you could see everyone was laughing and having a good time, drawing a version of themselves that looked imperfect.”
Ferro then selected individual lines from the students’ drawings and put the lines together to design the mural—a colorful, abstract amalgam of lines meant to represent “the rich cultural diversity of the CKHS family,” according to the mural proposal.
CKHS has a diverse student body, composed of 80 percent Hispanic, 11 percent Black, 6 percent Asian, 1 percent White, and less than 1 percent other racial groups, including two or more races, according to the school’s website.
According to Ferro, who immigrated to the United States from Brazil, many of the students who helped with the project are first or second-generation immigrants.
“Cross Keys students are so sweet and smart,” he said. “They’re very hard-working kids who appreciate opportunities like this.”
As an immigrant Ferro said the kind of diversity that exists at CKHS and the spirit that’s grown around that diversity is important.
“I think it’s very important, even more now with such a negative trend and this divisiveness in the country right now—this negative perception from half of the country towards immigrants,” he said. “I think it was very important for me and for [the students] to make a statement.”
Ferro said the kind of beauty Zambrano referred to inside CKHS was, in his mind, connected to its diversity. According to him, that beauty made the project especially beautiful for him.
“I’ve made artwork that I’m proud of, but this mural—because of the background of the whole community engagement that happened—is my favorite,” he said. “It’s such a beautiful project and I’m very proud of it.”
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