Not Like MTV: Julia Rose Morgan's Mural Shares Stories of Teen Moms

Painter Julia Rose Morgan (@juliaroseart) poses in front of her mural.
Painter Julia Rose Morgan (@juliaroseart) poses in front of her mural.
Lila Thulin
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As Julia Rose Morgan explains her new mural at Florence Crittenton High School, toddler chatter drifts in like background music. That's because Florence Crittenton is an alternative high school for teen moms; the mural, laced with purples and gold, depicts scenes of motherhood.

The school and its linked nonprofit, which provides a plethora of family and health services for "FloCrit" students, commissioned the mural in anticipation of their 125th year. "We wanted something that would represent what the girls go through," says Julia Goodman, Florence Crittenton's marketing and communications coordinator.

A closer look at the Florence Crittenton mural.
A closer look at the Florence Crittenton mural.
Lila Thulin

Denver has been home to a branch of the organization since 1893, when it was the Florence Crittenton Mission. While the group's primary purpose was to house pregnant teens and help them gain vocational skills, that function changed drastically after the advent of birth control. As the number of teen moms shrank (only 2.03 percent of the infants born in Colorado in 2014 had teen moms), Florence Crittenton Services entered into a partnership with Denver Public Schools in 1984. Now it's one of the few — possibly the only — schools in America with an integrated model of education, child care, prenatal care and social-worker support, and it's all on one west Denver campus. Despite the challenges young mothers face, Florence Crittenton students graduate high school at a rate of 87 percent, a figure that equals the 2015 state five-year female graduation rate and exceeds the 2016 four-year average of 78.9 percent. This year, 35 young women wore purple caps and gowns, their children in matching mini-me outfits, to receive their diplomas.

Julia Morgan works on her mural.EXPAND
Julia Morgan works on her mural.
Julia Goodman

Morgan's mural is on a south-facing wall of the building that houses Florence Crittenton Services, separate from the high school, which holds the nonprofit's offices, a preschool/daycare, a Certified Nurse Assistant training program, and art therapy and parenting classes. One classroom has squat brown couches and plastic models of babies in utero.

Adding a mural was the idea of development associate Maggie McHenry. In March, McHenry reached out to the RiNo Arts District, and Lindsey Hendershot, who organizes the CRUSH street art festival, put her in contact with Morgan. For Morgan, Florence Crittenton's mission resonated: "Support of mothers is absolutely the pinnacle of what the world needs right now," she says. And the 22-year-old artist, who finished high school and began living on her own at sixteen, understands having adult responsibilities when others are still getting their driver's licenses.

Before painting, Morgan brought sketched designs to get feedback from teachers, nonprofit staff and students in Donica Snyder's art therapy class. "I'm not sure people ask our girls for opinions a whole lot," remarks Snyder, but during fourth and fifth period, the students got to voice their ideas, "making sure there were brown-skinned girls" who looked like them on the wall (91.3 percent of FloCrit's student body identifies as a racial minority). With the community's input, Morgan made adjustments, buffed the wall a solid color and began outlining her largest aerosol project yet. She worked mornings and evenings in direct sun, sometimes perched on a ladder or wearing a face mask, burning through an estimated $1,000 of spray paint (and that's not counting the donated recyclable paint). Some students helped with the sunflowers at the bottom of the mural; they said painting with an aerosol can in hand felt "so illegal," Morgan says, laughing.

Fittingly, Morgan applied the last coat of paint — the wings of a blue butterfly — on Mother's Day. Neighborhood children ran up to ask if she was done, finally, and to look at the finished work.

The mural starts with a summer scene: a girl in a violet dress cradling a book and her pregnant belly. The students like the figure's introspection and downturned eyes, as well as her resemblance to Kim Kardashian. The idea, Morgan explains, was to convey "what it means to be pregnant with ideas and goals as well as a physical, breathing child."

Next, there are scenes of exploration — the skateboarding girl came from the students' desire to challenge gender roles in the mural — as well as a mother working on phonics with her toddler and sledding on a nearby hill.

Morgan says that the last section, spring, is her favorite. It shows a woman, purple graduation cap atop her natural hair, using a paintbrush to fill in the mural. Beside her, her daughter paints in the blue butterfly.

Today, the completed mural's bright colors catch the eye as you drive into Florence Crittenton. As administrative assistant Laurel Johnson puts it, "The mural has brought so much light to our campus."

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