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KCAI Students Prepare Murals For Vacant Scarritt Elementary School

Last week, visiting instructor Héctor Casanova Cinderhouse was at his desk in the illustration department at the Kansas City Art Institute, contemplating a small pile of plans for the first phase of a mural project at Scarritt Elementary School in the historic Northeast.

Initially, Casanova Cinderhouse was looking for a much smaller project for his class. But when Kansas City Public Schools offered his students the Scarritt Elementary project, he jumped at the chance. Scarritt Elementary has been closed since 2011 and has become a magnet for vandalism and loitering.

“I really got excited, not just because it fits perfectly with what I am trying to do with my students, but also because I happen to live in the Historic Northeast,” he says. “So this school is a five-minute drive from my own house.” Besides, he says, teaching is "like having my own army.” 

In an alley behind the building, several teams of his illustration students were at work in the dappled afternoon light. Standing before a tableau of a draped Venus and her attending cherubs, Alicia Wyatt, a junior at KCAI, was struggling with the transition from water lily to the hexagonal cells of the beehive. Casanova Cinderhouse stepped up to offer some advice. 

“Focus on keeping the hexagons generally the same size as the lilies,” he said. “Do be mindful, though, as you are making adjustments -- don’t lose track of your composition.”

Around a nearby corner, a giant woman peeping through Venetian blinds was beginning to take shape. Student Nicholette Haigler stood on an iron garden chair steadily painting throughout the afternoon.

"It’s a lot about interaction with the space and a scale shift what a woman’s actual size would be versus how big we’ve made her," she said. "We think it will be really easy to see from the street.”

Casanova Cinderhouse said that the mural project drives home an important lesson for his students: artists need to be aware of their social responsibility. 

"Using art as a citizen activist to basically embellish a community, I think, is one of the coolest things we can do as artists,” he said. “This is a loud, visible project that also has a great deal of positive effect on the neighborhood.”

With so many boarded-up windows and doorways — Casanova Cinderhouse said he stopped counting at 300 -- he says the project will take at least three years. His students aim to complete half of the north facade by December 8 of this year.

The biggest project expense is varnish, the key to the longevity of the student work.

“We want this to last as long as it needs to, because even though the future of the building is in question, it could be sold or re-purposed in a year or it could stand as it is for another 15 years,” said Casanova Cinderhouse. “We don’t really know, but we want the art to look great all the way through then when and if it gets sold we can reuse the same panels to do the exact same thing somewhere else.”

Artists Héctor Casanova Cinderhouse, Jose Faus, Scribe, Gear, and KCAI students will lead a community workshop on October 12 at the Kansas City Museum, 3218 Gladstone Blvd, Kansas City, Mo., 816-513-0720.

Suggestions for themes for the Scarritt Elementary School mural project can be sent to: scarritt.elementary.project@gmail.com.

Julie Denesha is the arts reporter for KCUR. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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