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Restoration or Destruction for Willard Middle School Mural By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday May 06, 2005

Eight years ago, in an act that Willard Middle School Vice Principal Thomas Orput calls a “total fiasco,” the Berkeley Unified School District painted over the Telegraph Avenue mural on the school gymnasium’s outside wall without contacting the artists. 

At the time, it was the largest mural in Berkeley, and only a small portion was able to be saved after community protests flooded the school district. 

This spring, the school must make a decision on a second mural, a 135-foot-long painting along the school’s Stuart Street Academic Building. And this time, the Willard administration says it wants to get it right. 

“We either have to restore the mural or we have to archive it and demolish it,” Orput said. “We can’t leave it the way it is.” 

The unnamed painting was designed by Chicano artist Malaquias Montoya in the 1970s. It was painted by Montoya, then a professor at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, and CCAC students, and was part of a project that completed 15 murals in Berkeley, Oakland, and on the CCAC campus itself. 

Montoya is now a professor in the Chicano Studies Department and Art Department of UC Davis, teaching courses on mural painting and surveys of Chicano art. 

Twelve feet tall at its upper end and 20 feet at its lower, the mural depicts a sweeping story of multicultural struggle, with heroic figures from different races and ethnicities massed together in scenes along mountains and fields, hands holding burning sunfires or calculations or reaching down to pull up the downtrodden. At what Orput calls the “dark end” of the piece, it descends into an apocalyptic vision of war and struggle, with dingy American, British, and Soviet Union flags, worker-warriors holding back snarling robot dogs on leashes, and a grinning, malevolent demon-face in the far corner. 

In a telephone interview, Montoya said that the themes of the mural were all developed out of the thoughts of Willard students. When the mural was commissioned by the school district, he said he asked the middle school to select a cross-section of students to meet with him and the CCAC artists. 

“We asked them what was important in their lives,” Montoya explained. “They talked about that atomic energy sign on the BART trains and how that scared them, and that’s why that symbol shows up in the mural. They talked about how bad television was, but how they were addicted to it. They talked about the battle of the superpowers—America and England and the Soviet Union at that time—so that’s where the flags came from.” 

The robot dogs, he said, actually grew out of mechanical birds, which the Willard students said were symbolic of evil. “The birds didn’t work in the piece,” he said. “At that time, those ‘transformer’ toys were big, and so we turned the mechanical birds into ‘transformer’ dogs.” 

Montoya said the images at what Orput calls the “dark end” of the piece were so controversial at the time the mural was conceived that the Willard principal at that time called him back in and protested that the students couldn’t have come up with those images. 

“So we met with the Willard students again and asked them if what we were depicting was accurate,” Montoya said. “They said it was.” 

The centerpiece of the Willard mural is a quote from Brazilian progressive education advocate Paolo Freire: “If children reared in an atmosphere of loneliness and oppression, children whose potency has been frustrated, do not manage during their youth to take the path of authentic rebellion, they will either drift into total indifference, alienated from reality by their authorities and the myths the latter have used to shape them, or they may engage in forms of destructive action.” 

Orput said he has no desire to wipe out the mural unless it’s absolutely necessary. “My mother was a middle school art teacher in Minnesota, and her thing was murals,” he said. “It’s my thing too.” He added that the Willard mural is “a very beautiful piece.” 

Orput said he particularly likes the inclusion of the quote from Freire, whom he studied during intern work in the Oakland public schools. “It’s a great reminder to teachers and kids of our multicultural world, and it’s a special reminder of teachers to keep their work relevant to the kids,” he said. 

It is also slowly disintegrating, and that is the problem. 

The mural was painted over concrete in a preservation process that the Vice Principal says was “not very good.” As a result, flakes of paint, some of them as large as quarters, have fallen off the facade in recent years. Orput says that the deterioration appears to be escalating. 

In addition, Orput says that the mural invites vandalism—a recent message marked over one of the figures reads “Reject CR And Get Disrespected”—and that because there is no protective coating over the original art, school personnel are often at a loss as to how to eliminate the graffiti without harming the mural. 

Another problem is that a portion of the mural covers archways over a sunken entranceway to the Academic Building, a popular spot for homeless. 

“I have great respect and sympathy for the homeless,” Orput says, “but this is not a good situation for our students. Often either myself or my staff have to get here before the kids to wake people up and to clear the area of needles and refuse and waste. We need to do something with the entranceway to prevent that, and that may have an impact on the mural.” 

Orput, who is in charge of Willard’s $3.4 million bond-financed renovation, says that before a decision is made whether to restore the mural or archive-and-demolish, he wants to cost out both options. He also wants to talk with directly with Montoya, as well as with the 8 student artists who worked on the project. 

“We definitely want their input,” Orput said. “We want to hear their opinion on what they think should be done.” 

Meanwhile, the archiving has already begun, with what Orput calls unexpected and spectacular success. 

While looking through old artifacts to be preserved when the school’s Administration Building is demolished this summer, the Vice Principal found cardboard tubes holding the original story board drawings for the mural. Also included with the story board were original notes on the project, apparently by Montoya. 

“The wall of the junior high school (like any wall), demands a mural which addresses specific, relevant issues,” he wrote. “We tried to find out what concerns the students have about issues that affect their lives, such as their opinions on education and current world events. ... We were impressed by the students’ awareness of global events and politics. ... In the final mural design, we have tried to incorporate the students input while offering hope and possibilities for their own personal contributions to the continuing struggle for peace.” 

Whatever happens to the original mural, he wants the story board to be preserved and displayed, both in digital form on the school’s website and possibly inside one of the school buildings as an original exhibit. 

Montoya called the discovery of his original working drawings and notes “pretty amazing.” He said he had been contacted by a Berkeley school official by telephone, and told the district was thinking of painting the mural over. 

“I told them it was their decision,” he said. “But every time you see a mural whitewashed over, it’s sad.” 

The artist said he was delighted that the final decision had not yet been made, and that Orput planned to talk with him and the student artists directly to get their input before moving forward. He said he had seen another of his Berkeley murals destroyed without his knowledge. 

“There was one we did on Telegraph Avenue at the old co-op in the ‘90s,” he said. “It depicted the Black Liberation Struggle. One day I was driving by, and it was just gone.” 

Since the time Montoya and Orput were interviewed for this article, they reported that they have communicated with each other, but said no decision has yet been made on the future of the Willard mural.›