May 24, 2017
By Hunter Braithwaite | June 29, 2015 | Culture
Local activists are using street art to revitalize a Wynwood school’s arts program.
Which makes less sense in Wynwood—a blank wall or a public school without an arts program? Robert William de los Rios would argue for a tie. Raised in Hialeah, de los Rios is “100 percent the product of the 305,” and has seen art change his hometown. Over the past few years, he’s documented the colorful eruption of Miami’s street art as the cofounder of wynwoodmap.com. Last March, he and Wynwood Arts District Association’s Patrick Walsh met with April Thompson-Williams, the new principal at José de Diego Middle School (JDD) in Wynwood, to discuss bringing art into the school.
Located next to the Bakehouse Art Complex in the northwest corner of Wynwood, José de Diego Middle School faces a plight similar to that of many Florida schools. Enrollment in charter schools has decimated the public school’s student body (although built for 2,000 kids, enrollment at JDD hovers around 600), and its art department had been eliminated four years earlier, the victim of the former principal’s attempt to balance the budget. Thompson-Williams showed de los Rios and Walsh around. They saw the art room, which had no teacher; they saw the band room, which had no teacher. Outside, with its barren white walls, the school was but a lens flare in the otherwise color-drenched neighborhood.
Together with Walsh and Thompson-Williams, de los Rios founded Re-imagining the Arts in Wynwood (RAW) to put art on the walls and back in the classrooms. He reached out to the entire neighborhood, gathering support from restaurants like Suviche and galleries like Primary, Spinello Projects, Robert Fontaine, and Gregg Shienbaum. Kobra and Liquitex donated over 2,000 cans of spray paint. Inviting both local and international artists, de los Rios started a chain reaction where everybody wanted to paint a piece of JDD. “We started with 35 artists, and now we have 71,” he says. “And when I say that we painted every wall, I mean every wall.” Interior, exterior, hallways, courtyard, auditorium—even the roof, so that tourists can see it as their plane descends into nearby MIA (“Also, Google Earth,” de los Rios points out). José de Diego’s students also helped out, both with paint and with their opinions.
Last year, Thompson-Williams rearranged funds to hire one art teacher, but it doesn’t stop there. All of the artists donated work to be auctioned off as part of a two-year, $500,000 fundraising drive that will fund an arts magnet program in the school. The project’s launch during last year’s Art Basel in Miami Beach garnered plenty of media attention, but today, six months in, the website shows that only $4,070 has been donated (visit projectwynwood.com to contribute). De los Rios is a bit frustrated, but is not discouraged. The number is growing incrementally—the 2015 Wynwood Life festival recently raised $6,000. And, most importantly, the idea itself is spreading. “I’ve had three sit-down meetings with the superintendent’s office of Miami-Dade County Public Schools. They want to do this in every single school in the county.” 3100 NW Fifth Ave., Miami, 305-573-7229
photography by robert william de los rios