This is "Harlem Renaissance" at North Division High School in Milwaukee Wisconsin, my mural project for the summer of 2004. Initially, I was asked by administrators at North to assist on the project, which was going to be designed by someone else.  I was originally supposed to provide a skilled hand, but later found out that I would have to design and lead the whole of the project --which was alright by me. 

North Division High School, at 10th and Center St. in Milwaukee inner city, is at the heart of Milwaukee Public Schools' "small schools within schools" initiative and will open this fall as Multiplex North Division. The smaller schools initiative is modeled after new high schools in Baltimore and New York, and North is a high profile school right now, with lots of people visiting. You might say the "Harlem Renaissance" mural is part of the transformation at the school, a celebration new beginnings that pays homage to an era of many new beginnings -- the artistic, intellectual and cultural renaissance of 1920s Harlem. 

The "Harlem Renaissance" wall is about 10 feet high and a zillion feet long. OK, not that big -- but it is a huge area to work with. The school has a brick interior -- tons of browns and earth tones all over the place. I actually found this pleasing, and questioned whether it was a good idea to paint directly on the walls. Nevertheless, a permanent wall mural was what the school wanted, and I was given a list of about 30 names to incorporate into the mural, and a crazy tight schedule to do it in. "OK," I thought, "I'll give it my best shot." 

A two-week delay getting started gave me time to study the Harlem Renaissance era, and come up with the design. I wanted to merge the mural with the building so it would appear natural in its place yet still stand out and give the school a new feel. My color choices would have to be good and the design very strong.  I settled on a basic foundation of warm colors, using reddish browns, sienna and burnt oranges to accent the natural brick walls, painting them without covering the brick feel. I definitely did not want to go with loud primary colors. 

Design-wise, I wanted to not just do a bunch of floating heads -- that seems to be the old standard used by many muralists. My approach was to create a visual documentary of 1920s Harlem and all the feel of that era, a walking language kind of like Egyptian hieroglyphs. So I decided to break the mural down into three areas: first, the introduction to Harlem; second, the artists and poets; and third, the clubs and music. 

The final stage being the fun part, I couldn't wait to get started. Because of the lighting in the halls I couldn't use a projector, so it was gonna have to be all free hand. That worked fine -- I got a skilled hand -- and it actually proved to be quicker for me to go directly from brush to wall. Part of the deal was to work with kids, which slowed the work down a little, but I kept my crews small, consisting of two or three kids at a time ...


Day 1: Completion of initial image, color scheme set in place.

Day 2: Refined images and extension of color scheme.

Day 3: More refining, and expansion of overall design on Stage One of wall.

Day 4: The addition of sky, city, Aaron Douglas homage and boy reading, plus overall color scheme set into place.

Day 5: I started refining the city scene and introduced "the ghost head technique" with Marcus Garvey.

End of Week One Next