Painting a Multicultural Mural

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As one of the Deans of Shang Shi Elementary School gets to know me, I tell her about a painting I made on an organic farm in rural Japan, how it reflected my internship there, the concepts I learned, and values that shifted within me. She asks to see the painting. Titled Peace Tree-ty, the painting is about 15 feet wide and 6 feet tall, and there are five trees with peace signs for leaves. I didn’t think twice about recapturing the painting for her, but as soon as I finished my story, I was in for another adventure.

The following day, the principal commissions a multicultural mural to be done on the first floor of our school in Taichung, Taiwan. I am a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant there, and I am surprised and delighted to take on the job. In college, I studied Studio Art, Education, and Chinese and am particularly drawn to public art. This project could not be a more perfect fit. I produce sketches for the principal to choose from, ask students about color combinations and what they would like represented in a school painting. I make sure to incorporate common activities in the students’ lives: unicycling, jump roping, Chinese yoyo, and swinging.

We start to paint at the beginning of November. Faculty members and I prime the walls in light blue, and I draw the design onto the surface. People in the community help, too. Nearby undergraduate students, parents, and elementary children come to volunteer and paint on the weekends. We exchange snacks and stories as we paint, and I find myself very grateful to be exactly where I am.

By the end of November, the painting is finished. The mural stretches over two walls, creating a stairwell corner of color and play—a space for someone to reflect about what a tree of countries might represent, or a space for someone to pause and absorb its beauty. The tree is a sign of living together with cultural differences. It is about how humans across oceans have commonalities, and it about the importance of peace between nations. This picture shows one slice of the mural along with relationships I developed with the Dean and some students as we completed this project.

One of the best decisions I made during this process was to let go of the fear that the mural would turn out horrible if I let elementary students help. Because of this decision, the painting turned into a wonderful community bonding opportunity. Students added flowers and details that I did not originally plan, making work more vibrant and meaningful. The mural helped me develop on personal and professional levels as well. It strengthened my leadership and communication skills, helped me connect with my new community, and it strengthened my Chinese. In school, the students and parents know me as Teacher Ida, but I am otherwise known as Ida Sobotik, serving as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant for the 2015-2016 school year.

Author: Ida Sobotik, 2015-2016