Wall of Heroes: How a GAMP music teacher inspires students by honoring the departed

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GAMP Mural | photo by Nicholas Mehalick | courtesy of the artist
GAMP Mural | photo by Nicholas Mehalick | courtesy of the artist

Among any number of other anxiety-inducing occurrences, 2016 will be remembered as The Year That A Whole Lot of Famous People Died. But beyond our surface-level mourning, our requisite posting of YouTube clips and vintage photos, there was a more thorough consideration of these lost artists and their significance. Who were they as people? What did they stand for artistically and socially, and what lessons can we carry forward from them into the next generation?

Philadelphia school district teacher Nicholas Mehalick takes the deeper approach. Last year, the AP teacher at Girard Academic Music Program worked with his students to create a classroom mural memorializing David Bowie, Prince and Alan Rickman, all of whom passed away last year. As Mehalick explains it, it’s a celebration of sexuality and race, of human complexity and ultimately of unity. His class finished it before summer break, and it became an integral part of his instruction during the fall semester.

Mehalick reached out to us over the holiday about the mural, and we swapped emails to get more information on the project — his responses are thorough and illuminating, and you can read them in full below.

The Key: How was the idea for the mural developed? Was it conceptualized in collaboration with the students, or more of a project assigned to them?

Nicholas Mehalick: The idea for the mural was something I knew I wanted to do with the AP students at the end of the year, as their class wraps up a bit earlier than the other students, which allows for some freedom in assignments and ways to address the acquired skills from the year. I have created large visual art pieces in my previous classroom and have found it extraordinarily effective as a teaching tool throughout the year. Because so many incredible artists had passed away in 2016, I thought it fitting to commemorate the impact of said artists by immortalizing them on the wall of a music school classroom.

Yet while I came up with the idea, the deceased artists chosen and how they would be portrayed was a collaborative effort between myself and the students. I have had pieces of plate‐glass mirror that spell out the phrase “We Are Reflections of One Another,” in my classroom since my first year teaching back in 2009 and wanted to incorporate that in the mural as well. After that idea came out the students and I really started putting the piece together quickly.

Many of the students started to reference discussions we’d had throughout the year, as the AP Language class is primarily concerned with argument and rhetoric. We looked at a number of speeches, essays, and other non‐fiction pieces and discussed the debates at length. Many of the students recognized the contemporary focus on divisive rhetoric over that of unity in the debates, something that was sharply juxtaposed to pieces such as Robert Kennedy’s speech after Martin Luther King Jr. passed, for example. After landing on the “We Are Reflections…” theme, our goal to focus on unity became clear and the pieces really fell into place.

TK: Talk a little bit about each of the subjects ‐ Bowie, Prince, Rickman ‐ and the group’s thoughts on their significance?

NM: By focusing on the theme of unity and being reflections of one another, each of the subjects in the piece were meant to work together to try and represent what it means to be human, to be a complex and thoughtful citizen of the world. As well, these artists fit with the music or literature focus of the classroom. Lastly, all three possessed a clear duality in persona that epitomized the complexity and unity the class wanted to highlight with the mural.

The group decided on David Bowie primarily because he embodies for us the spectrum of sexuality on which we all fall in varying degrees. Sexuality and the rights of the LGBTQ community are topics discussed in class quite often and were even more present after comments and discourse from the debates as well. Embracing one’s masculinity and femininity, regardless of one’s given sex, not conforming to gender norms or giving in to patriarchal oppression are all notions that David Bowie embodied.

Artistically, Bowie also refused to accept given classification and was constantly inventing, and re‐inventing himself and his art. Always striving for something progressive and new was another quality the students and I felt important to recognize moving forward. As well, while Bowie was breaking free of form, he always showed respect for and elevated tradition, most notably his appreciation for Japanese Kabuki theatre. This marriage of the past and the future, and all the aforementioned reasons, are why we chose him for the mural.

In much the same way as Bowie, for the class and I, Prince represented the embracing of one’s femininity and masculinity and compounded this further with his inherent racial duality. As musicians from various racial and cultural backgrounds, some students expressed the need to include Prince as he represented a rejection of racial stereotypes with regard to what type/genre of music one might be expected to play. Students who enjoy playing and listening to music not typically shared by many from their own race stated that few artists beside Prince could act as unifiers across racial and musical boundaries. Having to hide one’s affinity for music that doesn’t fit the way one looks is something that Prince helped to break down and for that, and the aforementioned reasons of duality of race and sexuality, we felt he was another appropriate figure to include in the mural.

Lastly, Alan Rickman in his famed role of Severus Snape, was chosen primarily because he embodies both the light and dark within each and every one of us. The Harry Potter series is one that offers numerous opportunities for comparison, analogy, and general discussion as most students have either read the books, watched the movies, or both. The vast majority of students are certainly familiar with the characters and find Snape to be both a reassuring character as he is ultimately guided by love, but also one who serves as a warning to the darkness, be it guilt, pain, jealously, etc. that exists in all of us and threatens to overtake us at times.

The battle between good and evil and humankind being inherently flawed was a major point of discussion throughout the year. As the class I dove into the numerous examples of manipulation and propaganda, the rhetoric used both positively and negatively throughout time in the English language, we realized how important reflection and a recognition of the potential for either was and felt that Snape was a central figure (hence his location in the mural to represent this).

Overall, the figures were meant to take on major qualities of humanity and the human experience, namely: gender, sexuality, race, good and evil, and of course art and culture. We felt these figures represented some of the best examples of humanity moving toward progress and acceptance, rather than division, and chose them for those reasons.

TK: How was the mural painted? Was it a team effort or largely A few people’s work?

NM: The mural was painted in large part by the students in my AP Language and Composition class. As the enormity of the project began to set in, we also reached out to various 9th grade students who felt strongly about the message of the mural and had them do much of the taping and touching up near the end of the project.

The AP Lang students were broken into “teams,” Bowie, Prince, and Snape ﴾Rickman﴿ respectively. Each team focused on finding the best possible picture to use a template for their given portion of the mural. They were then asked to use their visual literacy skills to develop the color palette for each figure that would relay the message each figure was meant to embody. Students were also asked to consider how the pose, chiaroscuro, and collective “parts” of the image would work with the text at the top of the mural. Essentially, taking into account the interrelationships of all the pieces involved.

While all students participated in this foundational portion of the project, there were four students assigned as the supervisors and primary painters of the piece. Maddison Stone for David Bowie, Wilhelmina Hartana for Prince, Gianna Desimone for Alan Rickman, and Carmen Sylvester as collaborator with each of the aforementioned students. These students really ensured the piece turned out as professionally and aesthetically pleasing as it did. Essentially they focused on the detail work while the rest painted the background and other smaller portions of the mural.

TK: In the photo, we see smaller images surrounding the central mural ‐‐ are they part of the work as well?

NM: They are not, not intentionally anyway. The pieces surrounding the mural are various prints from the Philadelphia Museum of Art left behind by the former English teacher Franco Fiorini. They are pieces from various artists of all different time periods and movements and I thought they would add to the overall aesthetic as well as message of the mural but they were not originally planned to be a part.

TK: Is the mural a permanent part of the classroom?

NM: Yes, the mural is a permanent part of the classroom. As mentioned previously, I like to have installed pieces throughout my room that I can reference for the students throughout the year for various lessons. In a previous classroom I had the phrase “Question Everything” painted by an artist friend of mine across the entire back wall, as well as “Embrace Your Daemon, Write Your Life.” Both were incredibly helpful reminders for the students as they are often insecure in their writing, especially in the beginning of the year. The reminder that creativity and inspiration are often these unforced intangibles helped them to recognize that, for better or worse, their work as a reflection of a moment and something they should embrace. This eased their anxiety for creating and I think allowed them to take more risks in class which led to more work being created and ultimately better work revealing itself.

This mural ﴾Bowie, Snape, Prince﴿ is one I have been using since the beginning of this school year to remind students of the depth and dimensions each of us possess individually, that are also reflected in myriad ways within one another. Because I teach freshman and senior students, I find one of the biggest hurdles is to have both groups feel comfortable and safe enough to speak their minds. The mural taking up and entire wall means it cannot be missed and I think this has helped to make the room more comfortable and welcoming as the students see a bit of themselves somewhere up there everyday.

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