By Hayley Thomas
The Berlin Wall may have crumbled a little over two decades ago, but a group of Paso Robles High School [PRHS] art students have proved that the protests of freedom scrawled across the expanse of cold, hard concrete continue to resonate louder than ever.
The art students joined other local youth and members of the community to complete the public art project over Saturday, Jan. 23 and Saturday, Jan. 30. Participants spray-painted, brushed and drew colorful images depicting views on freedom, justice and democracy across the mock walls while passersby stopped to watch or contribute their own handiwork to the project.
The two large canvases were set up in Downtown City Park during the consecutive afternoons and are currently housed at Studios on the Park, which will display the artwork through the end of the month.
Studios on the Park artist and project brainchild Henry A.J. Ramos said he was inspired by his own vivid experiences with the Berlin Wall.
"My wife is a German citizen and we lived in Europe when the Berlin Wall fell in '89," Ramos said. The couple, who lived close to Berlin, was privy to a firsthand account of the iconic event, which for many represented the end of the Cold War and Soviet Union oppression forever.
"As an artist, I was really impressed by the graffiti on the wall, which really dealt with issues of democracy, freedom and justice," Ramos said. "It struck me, on the 20th anniversary, that it might be really useful for young people who weren't alive when [the fall of the Berlin Wall] occurred to understand the history and relationship between what we are experiencing today in our own time and in our own society."
Ramos, who lives in Creston and sits on the California Community College Board of Governors, reached out to local youth when he spoke to art students at PRHS about artistic expression and contributing to the community mural.
About 10 students showed up for the first weekend, relishing the chance to show off their talents and opinions to the entire community.
"May of the kids expressed a real desire to come and join us," said Ramos. "It's a really great thing that [the art students] are quite hungry for these kind of opportunities."
According to PRHS art teacher Joshua Gwiazda, the students who showed up to work on the mural thrive on artistic opportunities like the mural project.
"They were thrilled to have the chance to work with a professional artist and to do something with the community in [Downtown City Park] and with Studios on the Park," Gwiazda said.
Ramos said less PRHS students showed up on the following Saturday, but he had the opportunity to meet a diverse group of kids who are known to hang out in the park's gazebo. The youth, ages 17 to 21, contributed their own thoughts and ideas to the mural.
"Many of the kids were homeless or dropped out of school or were struggling to get into higher education - some had trouble with the law," Ramos said. "So over the two weekends we had two very different sets of kids come out, but they were equally engaged and equally interested in the history and were really excited about the opportunity to work together in a community effort."
Ramos said that in a perfect word, at-risk kids would be provided with numerous opportunities for artistic and positive expression. the artist said he he plans to attempt to reach this ideal by continuing to collaborate with Studios on the Park and the city to get more community art projects rolling in the future.
"A lot of these kids tend to get into [problems] because they don't have strong adult figures in their lives," Ramos said. "They would be much more productive members of society if they... had more opportunities to express themselves and involve themselves in more constructive activities."
PRHS advanced art student Chelsea Lightfoot, 17, said that the project was fun and allowed her to express herself.
"I loved doing [the mural] and I like doing community projects," she said. "I drew a bird and a cage and wrote the word 'freedom.' I've always loved birds, they are kind of my signature, and they are symbols of freedom."
Fellow advanced art student Amanda Mills agreed that the project was fun but also educational and eye opening on a few different levels.
"I haven't really worked publicly, for one, or with the spray paints, which were very different to use," Mills said. The 17-year-old senior said that once she got the hang of it, she spray-painted an image of a girl with blazing blue hair.
"My message... was that it doesn't matter if you are different and we are lucky to be in a government that accepts people that are different. I thought that was important because the whole theme of the wall was to [depict] things reflecting our government and the issues that are going on right now," she said. "it was very different but fun. I look forward to doing more art projects with the community."