The Artist’s Voice: Arena High School students collaborate, negotiate, and create

By Natalie Strong

(This story originally appeared in our July 2018 issue.)

From the cover of The El Segundo Scene July 2018 issue: an Arena High School student works on the mural. (Cover design by Bob Jackson.)

A dozen or so teenagers buzz around an 8-by-ten-foot storage shed like bees around a hive, some reaching high, some crouched down low, all with paintbrushes in their hands. They are the students of Arena High School, and they are busy painting a mural they designed together. Watching them duck and weave, I get the sense that their somewhat organized dance of limbs and brushes did not come easily, but was developed over time spent toiling together. I wonder at their ability to work without messy mishaps despite how many close calls there are between paint and clothes and hair.

The mural is a made up of a collection of seemingly unrelated ideas: planets and plants, bees and a bear, Pickle Rick and the El Segundo water tower, a large red car, and a banner reading, “Don’t be afraid of new arenas. –Elon Musk.” Of course, if Elon Musk can put a car into space, why not put a bear and a bee in space? The choice to combine space and plants was informed by classes the teens have taken throughout the school year. I am told that the design process took a good deal of negotiation, and even after the design was agreed upon and approved by the board of directors, this mural remains a fluid project.

A tall boy reaches up, painting the white half of what will be a yin-yang symbol on a black outer space background near the top of the shed. As can happen in any artist’s project, and as if in slow motion, a long string of white paint escapes his brush and billows onto the shed in what is now an obvious mistake. Movement stops, mouths drop open. Oh no. I brace for an outburst. But then I realize that I spend most of my time with gradeschoolers, and I don’t know much about today’s teenagers at all. There is no outburst. After the briefest silence, they get their voices back. To my amazement, they begin to brainstorm what that white line could be, how it could be incorporated into the design as though it were intentional. “A trail of smoke!” “The yin-yang is melting!” “It’s a comet’s tail!” They laugh and enjoy each other’s ideas, and then without any input from adults, they work out that the simplest solution is to paint black over it. No big deal. “Who has the black paint?” The process is enjoyed, handled maturely, and everyone gets back to work.

The Arena mural artists are: Jacob Brockman, Inez Delude, Elijah Diggs, Jordan Gillette, Alessandra Gutierrez, Afonso Meiashu, Georgia O’Neil, Tylor Capello, Ben Romero, Ben Schar, Rowan Seiter, Austin Sorenson, Allyson Sosa, Ben Stanfield, Niman Sudwal, Mikayla Munson, Paige Adams, Charlotte Kendall, Dorothy Akexanian

They are good kids. They are nice to each other. They respect their project. And while it is clear that some are more interested in art than others, they are all tuned in to their group dynamic, and they all have respect for the work of their peers. This is the right project for this group of young people, and they have the right teacher.

The shed mural was the brainchild of Arena High School’s art teacher, Adriana Ochoa. When she came on board, she noted that the students were used to working individually, staying in the comfort zone of their own ideas, and sitting indoors. Adriana got them working together and helped them navigate the challenge of fusing their many ideas into one united piece of art. She helped them communicate with each other, and they came up with a group-driven design. They worked together to get the design approved, and then Adriana got the students on their feet and outside in the sunshine.

The mural will be completed in the fall when school resumes, but it is clear that the finished product is not nearly as important as all of the lessons the students have learned about succeeding together. Adriana willingly placed this project in their hands, and they have carried it, gaining self-confidence, ownership of their ideas, communication skills, and a concrete example of the power of perseverance and teamwork.

(This story originally appeared in our July 2018 issue.)

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