Sacred Stories: A Mural of Belonging
“My goal is to be kind and inclusive to everyone,” said Talan shyly as he whipped his blond hair away from his eyes when I asked him about his role in the project. Talan was describing a multifaceted, interactive mural project called “Sacred Stories” at Timpanogos High School.
When I arrived to take photos of the unveiling of the mural, I knew little of its purpose and planning. As I set up my camera, I saw some students standing in front of the hidden mural. I asked about their stories. They were from an English class and had been told by their teacher to come down to the commons area—they seemed unsure what the mural was about and why they were sent to watch its unfolding.
As more students and teachers gathered around the mural, I felt the excitement increase. I asked a woman who was looking at the black paper shielding the mural, “Do you have a student who worked on the mural?” She explained her daughter painted part of the mural. We spoke for a few minutes but were interrupted by the students who were now arriving from the little theater; these students were discussing the creative journey of planning and painting the mural. Now, they were coming down the hall to take the black paper down.
I quickly noticed Ms. Davis—the teacher who spearheaded the mural project—and four students moving to the front behind the yellow safety tape. The students' faces were so excited: they bounced on their toes, clapped their hands, and made funny excited faces at the audience. The unveiling happened so fast that I barely had time to get my ISO and shutter speed set up. The paper came down, the excitement escalated, and Ms. Davis got buried under a heap of crumpled black paper.
In the split second it took for a first look at the mural, I felt the peace, creativity, and connection the mural is designed to portray. As we interviewed the four students who were instrumental in making the project a success, the full impact of those first feelings settled in more deeply.
As Talan described his role in the mural project as a person who is kind, I stopped for a minute and thought. What an interesting description of his job title! Being known as a kind, inclusive, and non judgmental person is a perfect reason to have someone on a team. I asked him how the project changed him. This is what he said: “ I would say it’s made me more aware of everyone around me. We had conversations around the table, and it was cathartic to find out that others have emotions that I had...it’s interesting to see that politically we like to talk about our differences; then we go to make this mural about our differences, and we find out what we have in common.”
I noticed that the faces of those who had participated in the project held light and compassion and ownership and community. Drew Clark, president of the Latinos in Action social club, was able to work on the vision for the mural and to help bring it together. Her views of the school’s culture changed. She explained that the most life-changing aspect of the mural was, “learning that some students have gone to hell and back. I mean, I met people that I would never have talked to before. I look up to them and appreciate them. They are my friends.” Drew really hopes that other schools will want to do a project like this to bring their student body together.
As Fynn, the LGBTQ+ representative, hugged another student that came to celebrate, I asked how the project had helped the school come more together. Fynn worked with the AP History class to add symbols of diversity and inclusion to the mural to broaden its reach across the school community. The process helped them explore their identities, develop more awareness of community, and practice relating to others with different views and ideas.
Another student named Amanda managed the entire website aspect of the mural project with a couple of students' help. The website is still under development, and aims to share students’ stories with the goal of increasing the feeling of community throughout the school. The website homepage will feature an interactive mural with ordered buttons that show pop-ups of text that display as the user clicks through each button. Visit the website to read student stories and watch a student-produced documentary (coming soon!).
As I witnessed the life-changing experience this mural had for just these few students in the high school, I wondered how many more stories of change and illumination had occurred in the hearts and minds of other students at THS. When we hear and learn of others' stories it makes them more relevant to our own life experiences. It occured to me how different the rest of the school year will be for these students. Students who participated will be more awake, more alive, and more fully present in their relationship to others and to themselves. They will no longer be looking at their own self-absorbed reflection; rather, they will be gifted the ability to see their own reflection in the heart and faces of those who they meet. This perspective can shift a lifeless, dull, and mundane daily walk into one brimming with color, change, and progress.
Lisa Gemperline is a photographer and arts enthusiast in Farmington, Utah. Mother of five and Grammy Lou to two grandchildren, Lisa seeks opportunities to see things others can’t see, with the aid of her lens and camera. “When I’m behind a camera, my mind shifts from worry and fear to excitement, hope, and wonder. It’s like magic.”