The facade of PS 84 has become a living mirror of its community. Images of families and neighbors cultivating a teeming garden clothe the building. Above the plants and animals hovers a portrait of Jose de Diego, the father of the Puerto Rican independence movement and the school’s namesake. Together, they reveal the central commitments of Southside Williamsburg: to build a vibrant, multiethnic population, preserve the environment, and, most importantly, educate the young. It is a message now permanently on display, thanks to the efforts of local human rights institution El Puente and a host of partners.
On Saturday, September 9th, the school officially unveiled and dedicated its mural, “NurtureNature,” before a crowd of students, their parents and elected officials. Covering most of PS 84’s outer walls at the corner of Berry and S. 1st Street, the project was created through a partnership with El Puente and its Los Muralistas, an organization founded by Joe Matunis in 1990.
Matunis, a 53-year-old artist and a founding art teacher at the El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice, has devoted most of his life to community art. Born on a Pennsylvania farm, he went on to earn an MFA from the Art Institute in Chicago, but eventually became disillusioned with the art market. Bored with vegetating in a studio and standing at gallery parties, he began painting abandoned buildings under the cover of night and got hooked.
After a year of studying abroad, Matunis went to join his girlfriend (now wife) in Brooklyn, and immediately set his roots in the part of Williamsburg its inhabitants call “Los Sures” (the South). Looking for an organization that could help with public art projects, he joined El Puente and established Los Muralistas. Its members, which consist of neighborhood youth and El Puente Academy students, have since created nearly 20 murals.
The idea for the “NurtureNature” mural grew out of neighborhood protests against the proposed co-location of charter schools, such as Success Academy, within local schools. As PS 84 and El Puente formed an alliance with others, Matunis began to think of how to promote a growing coalition. “We wanted to put a public face on all the Southside residents supporting public education,” he explained.
From late March till June, Matunis and his students researched the topic, created a mock design and brainstormed with PS 84 Principal Sereida Rodriguez as well as the school’s PTA and 3rd and 5th graders. After a final presentation in June, Los Muralistas worked seven hour days in the midst of a sizzling heat wave until August 10th. Although at times toiling in three digit temperatures without shade, the young artists thrived, creating both an impressive work of art and a lasting bond.
“It was hard,” admitted Andrew Torres, a 17-year-old senior at the El Puente Academy. “The scaffolding was heavy, and some of us got dehydrated. I spent, like, $20 on water bottles. But I can’t complain. I enjoyed coming outside with my friends every day.”
For 15-year-old Hilda Cuenca, it was also an outlet for her burgeoning imagination. “Drawing is a way to express how I feel about the world. I’m also a poet, but when I can’t find the words I need, I just draw it out.”
Local officials gathered to praise the mural and reaffirm their allegiance to Los Sures. Among them were Assemblyman Joe Lentol, Councilmember Steve Levin, District Leader Lincoln Restler, and representatives for Councilmember Diana Reyna and Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez. New District 14 Superintendent Alicja Winnicki also made an appearance, saluting all those involved for strengthening the community.
“El Puente continues to be what us gringos call a bridge,” deadpanned Lentol. “And this mural shows us what the neighborhood is all about. We’ve been warriors in the assault against public education. Every day that goes by, I will continue to fight with you.”
The mural also reminded residents of the dynamic world within PS 84. As Rodriguez pointed out, the images of different people tending the same land reflects her own school’s dedication to integration and sustainability. Students continue to become fluent in English and Spanish thanks to the Spanish Dual Language program. And in September, it will open a Green Classroom, a precursor to a long-awaited Rooftop Green House Classroom. Once installed, kids can learn about hydroponics and how to grow their own vegetables.
“This mural represents what we have in terms of quality education,” declared El Puente Executive Director Frances Lucerna. “This is what our schools, particularly in Los Sures, should be fighting for. It allows us to see the world not the way it is but the way it should be. And that’s what we’re celebrating today: a committed effort to take our schools back and make them stellar places.”