The students at P.S. 9 in Prospect Heights don’t need to look far for inspiration — it’s right on the walls in the form of positive messages like, “Love yourself,” and in portraits of Bill Nye the Science Guy and ballet dancer Michaela DePrince.
Over the last three months, dozens of artists have worked tirelessly to create a whopping 72 murals on the outer walls of the elementary school.
The group was led by Jeff Beler, an artist and longtime Prospect Heights resident who launched the STEAM Mural Project in June. While the elementary school students enjoyed their summer break, Beler was busy transforming the building from sullen brick walls and concrete into a colorful, larger-than-life work of art.
“It’s been a life-changing experience,” Beler said. “The kids love coming to school now. They’re energized when they see these murals.”
At first, Beler said he was invited to create a single mural at the school — a tribute to 6-year-old P.S. 9 student Clara Ely, who died of brain cancer. He enlisted about 10 artists to help him work on the project back in May.
“Mrs. Sandra D’Avilar is very progressive and she gave us one side of the school where there’s a garden on the St. Mark’s section,” he said of P.S. 9’s principal. “So we called it Clara’s Garden and I curated it very sensitively; I’d never done anything like that before.”
As the mural began to take shape, Beler said the school and local community board asked if he could add more murals around the playground and the rest of the school. He then reached out to local street artists he thought would help and once word got out, he was inundated with requests to contribute.
By mid-June, the STEAM Mural Project was born.
“STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, art and math, and that was the basis,” for the inspiration behind the murals, Beler explained. “So I said to the artists, pick one that kind of goes with that.”
Some of the artists took a literal approach to the task, but Beler said he also made sure there were fun aspects thrown in as well, like a mural of a melting upside-down ice cream cone.
“Some are small, some are huge,” Beler said of the murals. “There are three big, giant ones — two on a handball court wall and one big one, which is a famous dancer.”
The STEAM Mural Project was immediately embraced by the neighborhood, according to Beler, and everyone from the custodial staff to school security was accommodating to the artists as they worked.
“The principal encouraged me to keep going,” he added. “So I just took it above and beyond.”
Now, the students and staff are ready to celebrate at their annual Bounce Back to School Carnival, where Beler and over a dozen of the artists will be honored during a reception at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday. The carnival, which is open to the public, will be held from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the P.S. 9 Playground on Underhill Avenue.
But even as Beler celebrates the completion of the STEAM Mural Project’s first endeavor, he is already looking to the future. In October, nearby P.S. 316 will get the STEAM Mural Project treatment, and Beler said other schools in the city have also expressed interest in his work.
“For schools with heavy arts programs, this is a perfect way to incorporate it,” he said.
Ideally, Beler said he’d like to bring the STEAM Mural Project to other school districts and states, showing people that, “street art is not a bad thing, it’s not graffiti and it can be a positive message for the kids.”