Professional Studies and Fine Arts

Professional Studies and Fine Arts

Projects for the Public Good Brings Art to San Diego’s East African Community

Student designed mural in City Heights intends to give youth a sense of importance, identity, and belonging.

Projects for the Public Good Brings Art to San Diego’s East African Community

By Mara Parker

December 10, 2018

Students from San Diego State University’s Experimental Processes in Art class (ART 406) have been granted funds to create a mural for a nonprofit serving the East African community in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego. United Women of East Africa Support Team (UWEAST) is an organization that provides health services, education, and advocacy to support the well-being of the East African community.

The mural, located at 3515 University Avenue, was entirely designed and painted by Art 406 students with assistance from Carlos Quezada of Love City Heights, a community group working to beautify City Heights through public art installations. UWEAST contributed images for the students to use as inspiration for their design.

The UWEAST mural project was funded by a grant from the College of Professional Studies and Fine Arts Projects for the Public Good program (PFPG). PFPG provides funding for endeavors that link the classroom with faculty expertise to address the needs of the community.

Eva Struble, associate professor of painting and printmaking, and the project’s grantee, recommended UWEAST as a beneficiary of ART 406’s mural project because of the organization’s commitment to social justice and its valuable work in caring for the needs of the East African community in San Diego.

UWEAST’s program associate, Agazit Tesfai, determined that the organization’s Urban Beats program, which uses artistic expression to break down the stigma of mental illness among East African youth, would gain the most from participating in the mural project. According to Tesfai, the topics of mental illness and standard therapies can be quite taboo in the East African community. That has led UWEAST to explore methods, such as painting, to help normalize conversations and assist healing.

In addition, Tesfai notes the need for youth in her community feel a sense of importance, identity, and belonging. “As our community in City Heights continues to change, it is vital for our youth and their families to have some kind representation that inspires pride and ownership, something that shows how important they are to the spirit of City Heights,” said Tesfai. “Professor Struble and her students have given the community an opportunity to achieve this with the mural project, and we are so happy that we can leave a physical mark that shows we were here.”

Struble, a mural artist herself, sees immense value in providing students opportunities to create public art, noting that it not only helps the community, but contributes to students’ personal growth as artists.

“A rewarding aspect of working on public projects with my classes is seeing students out of their normal context, in a neighborhood where they’ve never been, working to create artwork outside of the (sometimes) insular context of their head and of our classroom,” said Struble. “Doing their own painting or graphic design, they can put on headphones and shut everything else out, but working on a mural, students interact with each other and passersby who want to know more about the work.”

This particular mural project did present some challenges. The class experienced some difficulties finding an adequate location; it was difficult deciding on a design that reflected all of the diversity within the East African community; and there were strong reactions to some unwelcome inhabitants living in the crevices of the rough, brick walls – spiders. But overall, the students felt the experience was well worth it

Mckenzie Smith, a fifth-year student majoring in multimedia and communications, thought the students’ work brought the community together. According to Smith, the sense of unity became apparent early in the planning and design stage, and increased as the mural project came to fruition. “We especially felt the community coming together when we were painting. People would stop and admire our work,” said Smith. “We have had so many people walk by, take pictures, and let us know they are so happy to see us expressing community and bringing different cultures to life.”

And for Megan Van Dusen, a Child Development major with an Art minor, the idea that the mural has some permanence in the community gave her a great sense of gratification. “It felt so amazing to know that this artwork will bring joy to those around it and that it will continue to be highly appreciated by those in the community.”

The content within this article has been edited by Lizbeth Persons.

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