Student artist commemorates graduating class with mural
Teenage artist Leo Li will leave a legacy at his school when he graduates this year.
Over the past several months, his free time has been spent painting a large five-by-five-foot mural to commemorate his fellow graduates and the challenges they faced this year. Selected on an open call by the alumni committee, the grade 12 student from Steveston-London will travel to Cornell University to study architecture in the fall.
“As far as I can remember, I have been an artist,” says Leo. “In Grade 10, my love for art and design also inspired me to pursue a career in architecture, an art that fundamentally makes life easier and helps society.
The plan, according to graduate committee teacher sponsor Jeff Mah, is for each subsequent graduating class to uphold the tradition by creating its own mural.
“We hit one out of the park with (Leo),” Mah says.
The painting was created over several months in the school hallway outside Mah’s classroom. Leo says he enjoyed being able to paint at school, which provided a connection between work and the school community, as well as interacting with students and staff who walked past him while he was painting.
“I savored these moments of coming together,” adds Leo.
After Leo finished painting, the class members signed their names on the outside of the painting. Alumni committee chair Shirley Li notes that it was difficult to incorporate pandemic protocols into the signature of the mural.
“Not all graduates are in school at the same time, which means we had to put in place a lunchtime signing period and an after-school signing period,” she says. “We had to disinfect all used pens and stand next to the mural at all times. I myself have found that reminding graduates to maintain their social distance has been the hardest part. Most arrive with their friends to sign the mural, so they weren’t always socially estranged from each other – trying to pull them apart was really a challenge.
But despite the challenges, the painting was enjoyed by those who saw it, and Mah says it was good to be able to start a new, positive tradition this year and honor the Grade 12 students whose milestone year was very different. Despite many typical events being canceled – the winter dinner dance, the post-graduation celebration, and even regular classes and opportunities to connect – the painting helped create a sense of connection.
“(The painting) has been outside for months and no child has ever played with it,” Mah says. “People were walking right by and looking at it, and it was a real community feeling because the kids were asking about it.”
The background of the painting, with a blurry image of the school building and masks flying in the sky, was inspired by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai.
“All over the sky, masks fly like birds, replacing the concept of restraint usually associated with our facial covers with the idea of release,” says Leo.
The running characters in the foreground are based on paintings by the artistic mentor of Leo Jianjun An, a Chinese artist and designer who runs an art school in Richmond. Leo says the bright colors and “expressive line art” of the characters represent the enduring and invincible energy of his fellow graduates.
“By illustrating these numbers, I hope to be able to capture a small part of the collective optimism that defines 2021 graduates, instead of portraying a dull reflection on adversity,” says Leo.
Shirley says the committee was fascinated by Leo’s artistic ability, as well as the symbolism of his proposal.
“In particular, what struck us about his art was the background with the flying masks, and the way the graduates freed themselves as they fled into the distance,” says Shirley.
She says it was inspiring to be able to watch the progress of Leo’s painting day in and day out, and it gave her a sense of hope that her peers will be able to overcome the challenges of the pandemic. This is a sentiment shared by Leo when asked about the legacy left by the project.
“I hope that painting not only reminds students of the power of art, but also encourages their own reflection on the values and traits that define themselves and what their aspirations might be. The artwork itself is one of many examples of efforts within the Steveston-London community to make the days of the school year pandemic – as different and alienating as they are – encouraging and uplifting.