How Wirtz Elementary Got Its Murals

Advocacy Team (if applicable): 

Wirtz Elementary School Mural Project




How did an elementary school become a canvas for five contemporary artists without costing the district a penny? 

It took some creativity.

Story by Camille Schenkkan for Arts for LA



Last weekend, Harry Wirtz Elementary became a canvas for a group of renowned contemporary artists who created four murals on the campus’ walls. On Monday, Wirtz Elementary’s 800 students “walked the murals” and had a chance to meet the artists and discuss the themes and composition of the artwork.

Wirtz Elementary is a Title I school with a high percentage of students on free/reduced lunch, located in Paramount Unified School District. It's been an Arts for All school since 2006 and has a demonstrated commitment to arts education.  However, like many others in Los Angeles County, it’s experienced major reductions in funding in the past few years. It took creativity, collaboration and a dedicated fifth-grade teacher to bring the mural project to the school.

Eric CarusoThree years ago, 5th grade teacher Eric Caruso (pictured, right) decided he wanted his students to have more art opportunities. According to Wirtz principal Kelly Williams, Caruso is an inspirational teacher who began his innovative program by contacting five artists whose work he admired. The artists were supportive of Caruso’s idea and agreed to participate in the mural project.

Every other month, Caruso works with other teachers to introduce all 130 fifth-graders to one artist’s work. Students study and discuss the artist’s style, often connecting the themes to language arts and science curriculum, and create their own piece of art inspired by the artist.

At the close of the school year, Caruso sends images of the student artwork to the professional artist who inspired them. Each artist chooses three pieces to receive awards at the end-of-year art show and records a video message to the winners.

At the art show, students and parents view the large collection of student art and watch the videos. Winning students receive a prize supplied by the artists, often a framed piece of original artwork.

Wirtz Elementary School Mural ProjectWilliams noted that Caruso has invested countless hours of personal time preparing and planning for the program. “He also made sure it worked within the parameters of the instructional day,” she said, explaining that it can be challenging for teachers to find room in the schedule for non-tested subjects such as visual arts. For example, the students created their art at home (outside of instructional time).

Last summer, Mr. Caruso decided he wanted to expand the program and create a lasting impact on the Wirtz campus. Five artists-- Tim Kerr, Rich Jacobs, Seitaku "Tak" Aoyama, Yusuke Hanai and Albert Reyes-- agreed to travel to the school and paint murals on the campus walls.

As one of the artists is from Texas and one lives in Japan, funding the ambitious program was an immediate concern for Caruso and Williams. Williams considered approaching a neighborhood business for support and wondered where she would be able to find money to help fund the project.

Two of the artists have done work for the Vans Corporation as designers and approached the company to sponsor the mural project. Vans not only agreed to pay for materials and supplies, but also paid for the airfare for out-of-town artists to come to Los Angeles.

Wirtz’s operations & maintenance team prepped the walls and provided dropcloths; aside from that, there were no direct costs to Paramount Unified for the mural creation.

Wirtz Elementary School Mural ProjectNow that the project was fully funded, Williams and Caruso put together a presentation for Paramount’s Superintendent, Dr. David Verdugo, who is a major champion of arts education in PUSD. Dr. Verdugo thought it was a great opportunity for the Wirtz community.

Verdugo, Williams and Caruso presented the project to the Board of Education, providing the Board with detailed information about each artist and an overview of their prospective murals. The Board approved the project to move forward.

In the meantime, staff and parents were briefed on the project through presentations at various school meetings, such as the English Language Advisory Committee and School Site Council.

Parents and administrators also had a chance to preview the murals’ content. That was necessary, says Williams, because these aren’t the typical murals you see in many public schools. “You’re not going to see a standard mural. It’s not a lion or a wizard or a star; it’s going to be art. We’re not used to seeing this kind of work on school walls. Our kids can look at it and have a conversation.”

Wirtz Elementary School Mural ProjectIn fact, several of the murals are inspired by fifth-grade curriculum. Mr. Caruso provides the artists with an overview of what his students are studying and encourages his students to connect visual arts with science, math and language arts.

One of the murals portrays Anne Frank, whose diary is standard curriculum for Wirtz students. Another artist was inspired by a story from the students’ language arts unit on heritage to create a buffalo image that incorporates themes of conservation and coexistence. Williams says, “These murals are intended to inspire the students to start asking questions and want to know more about the subjects.”

One of the artists chose to feature student work on the mural. He chose six of his favorite pieces created by Wirtz fifth graders through Caruso’s program and used them to create a collage, crediting the young artists.

On Monday, January 30th, students, teachers, the Paramount school board, Superintendent Verdugo and the PTA board gathered for the revealing of the murals. Three of the artists were on hand to answer students’ questions about the artwork.  Four of the five murals have been completed, with a fifth pending by artist Yusuke Hanai.

“Mr. Caruso has gone above and beyond the call to bring opportunities to these students,” Williams says. She believes the arts can help students succeed in a 21st-century knowledge-based work environment, pointing to arts education’s ability to teach higher-order thinking skills.

Williams also pointed to changing attitudes toward student evaluations and the pressure to move away from simple numbers-based assessment. “In future, students will be assessed in a different way,” Williams says. “They’ll be asked to respond and give reasons for their answers, not simply fill in a multiple-choice bubble. Increasingly, our students must be able to examine, evaluate and explain things. Art lends itself to teaching those skills.”



Camille Schenkkan is Arts for LA's Development & Communications Manager.  Arts for LA is grateful to Rita Cruz and Kelly Williams for their help with this story.

Photos, from top: Students reflecting on mural by Rich Jacobs; Erik Caruso, 5th grade teacher who inspired the mural project; Dr. Verdugo, Superintendent of PUSD, with Paramount Mayor Hoffmeyer in front of mural by Albert Reyes; Mrs. Williams with students by Rick Jacobs mural; Mural by Seitaka Aoyama.

Photos courtesy Wirtz Elementary School and Ashley Howard.