With Help From Students, Big-Name Muralists Are Transforming a South L.A. High School

Shepard Fairey and other artists are making big changes at Dr. Maya Angelou Community High School in South Park

It’s 5 p.m. on Monday, May 13, and there are so many students at Dr. Maya Angelou Community High School that it feels like the start of the day. They’ve gathered for the kick-off of the Maya Angelou Mural Festival, the second event in a series spearheaded by mural-making organization Branded Arts. The week-long festival, inaugurated in 2016 at Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools, brings 30 renowned and burgeoning artists—local and international—to LAUSD schools to beautify spaces throughout the campus with relatable murals that evoke positivity and pride.

Even though most of the murals at Maya Angelou are in the prep phase at this point, the effects are already noticeable. Students from all grades, along with their parents and younger siblings, push rollers of orange paint across the basketball court. This is the first layer for artist Rob Hill’s contribution, an abstract design that uses his signature triangles and bright colors to convey balance and diversity.

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Artist Rob Hill with student volunteers

Seth Spector

“This project brings the kids together,” Hill says as he watches the progress. “Some of these kids probably don’t hang out with each other at school, but when you’re doing something everybody can be involved with, it brings them together.”

Faith47 (aka Faith XLVII) has already finished her masterpiece. Three stories high, her rendition of a phoenix, symbolic of Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise,” is imposing and uplifting. On a corner wall that wraps around the school and stretches down San Pedro Street, the all-women-of-color collective Ni Santas directs a group of student roller-wielders in readying their area.

maya angelou mural festival
Faith47’s mural

Seth Spector

“We chose wetlands, greens, people from the community, and historic buildings in the community,” Ni Santas’ Clover says of their mural. “People that aren’t famous and people that are famous. Roy Ayers came out of South Central, and the Dolphin family record store. The Central Avenue Jazz Festival on the corner of Central and Vernon and the Dunbar Hotel. We’re putting all of them in here.”

shepard fairey mural maya angelou
Shepard Fairey works on his contribution

Seth Spector

Two days after the start of the project, Shepard Fairey arrives at the school to begin his mural, a portrait of Angelou. “I’m always trying to do work that connects with younger people whose world view is still taking shape,” says Fairey of his involvement with both mural festivals. “I want to impress upon them to use their creativity and voices in pursuit of their ideals.

“I’m also a big admirer of Maya Angelou,” he continues, “I hope the power of the visuals inspire the students to look deeper into her ideas about social justice and to see that art can be a great way to initiate a conversation that might not happen otherwise.”

Fairey is a long-time associate of Branded Arts’ public art curator/production manager Warren Brand. Branded Arts evolved into a mural company as a result of the attention-getting murals it commissioned to promote pop-up art shows in Culver City. The firm completed 35 murals in a two-block radius over a three-year span, but some of them were lost when buildings were torn down or sold to new owners.

“The only way to inspire a real positive social change and major enrichment impact is to do something immersive.” —Warren Brand

“You spend all this time creating art, you want it to stay,” says Brand, who arranges for Branded Arts to participate in many philanthropic art projects. “We were looking for a place to create art that would be culturally enriching and also a gift to the community. Permanent legacy projects for cities is what we’re interested in doing.”

LAUSD campuses, especially the newer ones that won’t be demolished in the near future, are are natural fit. To match the diversity of the city’s students, the choice of artists is equally broad, thanks to Brand’s extensive network.

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Students walk past Add Fuel’s mural in progress

Seth Spector

This is in step with the vision of Hugo Carlos, Maya Angelou’s principal, who was born and raised in the neighborhood. “The school has been in transition and transformation with a focus on the community,” Carlos says. “We wanted to make sure what we were doing was inclusive and that it reflected the values and sensibilities of the community, at the same time honoring Maya Angelou and what she stood for.”

maya angelou mural festival
Jr.’s “The Inside Out Project” incorporates images of students.

Seth Spector

Members of the community and the district, as well as administration, staff, and students, have been involved in the comprehensive creation of the mural festival. A new addition to the program is a three-day academic symposium with multiple workshops, culminating in the grand reception on Saturday May 18. Among the people and organizations offering programming are Self Help Graphics, LACMA artists, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, and Miguel, who is performing at the Grand Reception on Saturday night.

“The only way to inspire a real positive social change and major enrichment impact is to do something immersive,” says Brand, who has spent so much time at the school and with the students, he’s considered honorary staff. “Thirty artists each time is a huge task, but it’s the right way to do it; then all the students are engaged in so many ways throughout the week. It’s how to create real transformation.”

Maya Angelou Mural Festival Grand Reception, featuring a special talk and performance by Miguel, takes place Saturday, May 18, 4-9 p.m.; Dr. Maya Angelou Community High School, 300 E. 53rd St., South Park. 

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