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North Division Renaissance

In the midst of a renaissance taking place at North Division High School, an artist is working with kids on a project that represents an earlier renaissance. Riverwest artist Eddie Davis has designed a mural and, with student help, is bringing it to life in the hallways. The rebirth of North Division is dramatic, reflecting some of the radical action needed to improve Milwaukee Public Schools. For example, NDHS has been split into five small schools within the building. The mural is the brainchild of the School of Humanities lead teacher, Darrell Terrell, whose vision for NDHS is that students will not only learn from teachers, but also from the space itself, so that learning becomes a part of the bricks and mortar. For help, Terrell turned to artist Davis, who had coincidentally been employed at NDHS as a school safety person. It was a natural choice, since Davis’s work is often directed toward getting youth to use art as a way of helping with behavior problems. Constructive — not destructive — is the aim. A portion of the funding for the project came from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with material support from the MPS Arts@Large program, which integrates arts and academics. The mural embodies that goal on a grand scale by focusing on the Harlem Renaissance, an explosion of African-American creativity which burst on the scene at the end of WWI and lasted until around 1935. Children of all ages have been involved in painting the mural, which was hand-designed and drawn freehand onto the brick wall by Davis. Over the summer even little kids from the neighborhood who enviously watched summer school students at work got to join in with paintbrushes. With the school season underway, more students are now involved. It’s a beauty, with a color scheme echoing the warm browns of the brick walls. Alive with energy and rhythms from a dynamic era, Langston Hughes, the best-known figure of the Harlem Renaissance, leads off the parade of portraits of other influential figures which are interspersed with street scenes from James Van Der Zee’s photographs and motifs from visual artists such as Aaron Douglas’ striking silhouette forms. Across from the school’s lunchroom, in two alcoves, Davis placed male and female artists “on stage” — Claude McKay and Paul Robeson defining one space; Josephine Baker, Bessie Smith and others, the second. Further along are scenes from the Cotton Club, and still further, in a section not yet begun, more individuals are yet to be represented — among them Louis Armstrong and Ethel Waters. They’re very big, as the mural soars to twelve feet vertically and stretches 100 feet along North’s central corridor. Will the students walking the hall be inspired to ask questions about the persons depicted and their accomplishments? Terrell and Davis hope so. There’s more to this story. Future art projects with Davis may include a student-run magazine, and, yes, another mural — this time to be completely conceived and created by the student body.