International artist Saïd Kinos takes a photo of Nicholas (left), Nico, Nivia, Timberly and Christine in front of a mural he painted with their help on Friday, September 15, at Cowell Elementary School.EXPAND
International artist Saïd Kinos takes a photo of Nicholas (left), Nico, Nivia, Timberly and Christine in front of a mural he painted with their help on Friday, September 15, at Cowell Elementary School.
Kenzie Bruce

Denver Public Schools Chosen for Miami-Based Mural Project

The RAW Project, a Miami-based group bringing mural painting to city schools, is changing its acronym to go worldwide, and its pilot city is Denver. The Re-Imagining the Arts Wynwood (RAW) Project began in 2014, in Miami's Wynwood Arts District (think RiNo times ten). The program's founder, Robert de los Rios, noticed a glaring hypocrisy: The middle school in the arts district didn't have an arts program. So de los Rios began contacting local artists to help bring art and art awareness to the area.

The project was a success. The school's principal credits it for helping decrease violence, increase enrollment and improve test scores. The school used the program to help raise funds to add an art teacher to the faculty.

Having proven itself in Wynwood, RAW expanded its budget and its scope and is going international, becoming the Re-Imagining the Arts Worldwide Project.

So why start in Denver? Serendipity and immediate support, says project manager Audrey Sykes, whose contacts in the Denver Public Schools said the city had communities and schools that could use a facelift.

"We knew we needed to take this nationally, and had a feeling art would be embraced here, but we had no idea how much," Sykes says as she sets up Italian artist Zed1 with a cooler of water, paint and a lift. "I reached out blindly and had my email forwarded to the Denver Public Schools superintendent."

When de los Rios began the project in Miami, it coincided with Miami's Art Basel fair; now the project is coinciding with Denver's CRUSH festival. Coincidence or not, RAW has recruited roughly thirty artists from Denver, the U.S. and the world for its work in the Mile High City.

Elementary students paint the wall outside of Cowell. "These murals are one of the most special things to happen in our community in years," Principal Shayley Levensalor says.EXPAND
Elementary students paint the wall outside of Cowell. "These murals are one of the most special things to happen in our community in years," Principal Shayley Levensalor says.
Kenzie Bruce

Having international artists participate in the project has expanded the conversation about the role of arts in education.

"In Holland, it's ingrained. We're able to take art until college," says Dutch artist Saïd Kinos, one of nine international artists who came to Denver for the project. "It shouldn't be mandatory, but people who are drawn to art should have the opportunity. Access is important. With no access, there's no choice."

Access has not been a problem for the project in Denver: School employees, children, artists and community members alike have given the project the green light. Even Hurricane Irma, which ruined plans to truck paint from Miami to Denver, didn't hold the program back too much; a Denver paint shop stepped in to help.

After being approved for a fall 2017 start date, RAW came to Denver in March and decided to focus on the Sun Valley and Villa Park communities, ultimately choosing three elementary schools to champion the project: Cowell, Eagleton and Fairview.

A mural from Miami-based artist Trek 6 at Cowell.EXPAND
A mural from Miami-based artist Trek 6 at Cowell.
Kenzie Bruce

"These murals will help Cowell be the center of the community in a positive way. I want the murals pretty much everywhere," says principal Shayley Levensalor. She hopes the murals not only increase community pride among families and students, but decrease vandalism in the area.

Other principals echo Levensalor's sentiments. Lee Rains Thomas, the principal at Eagleton Elementary, says that she feels her students already have a sense of ownership with the murals. Artist Paola Delfín took photos of each student in a third-grade Spanish class and is using them to cumulatively design her mural with "the hands of one student, the mouth of another," Thomas says. "They all think it's them. And you can't really tell, but it doesn't matter. What matters is, they classify it as their art."

Thomas says it's too early to really ascertain the project's impact, but she's noticed a shift already: Her school has the best attendance she's seen in five years. "Only seven students were absent out of 400 earlier this week. That's pretty impressive," she says.

And RAW agrees. Says Sykes, "I just thought, 'Man, if this is the feedback from one city, why stop going?'" So the group is not going to stop. The RAW Project will be in Denver through the end of September, and plans to spend time in both L.A. and London during 2018.

For a chance to support the RAW Project, visit Baere Brewery on Tuesday, September 19, for an event where 10 percent of the profits will be donated to the project. Follow it on Instagram and Facebook for other opportunities to get involved.

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