16TH STREET — A week ago, Will Rogers Elementary School had three handball walls, each a powder blue expanse that had faded and chipped with time.
What a difference a week makes.
The three panels are now a riot of color courtesy of internationally-known graffiti artist Kelly “Risk” Graval and local art professor Nathan Ota, who have spent the last seven days applying their considerable skill to the benefit of Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District students.
Risk and Ota transformed the walls into a scene depicting Ota’s interpretation of the tree of knowledge, clothed in a blue-striped shirt and topped with a school house complete with bell.
Radiating out are rays inscribed with sayings found around Will Rogers Elementary School painted by Risk against a backdrop of his signature color wash style. Both elements characterize other pieces in his “Beautiful Destruction” series, which took him to a wall in Los Angeles’ Skid Row.
Those rigid, geometric lines contain lyrics from a Led Zeppelin song “Good Times, Bad Times,” and symbolize a new, hopeful beginning. The Will Rogers mural has similar themes, but rather than starting over, the students are just leaving the gate.
“The rays here are possibilities,” Risk said.
The artists have been working for a week straight now, hopping fences when necessary to get extra time in with the mural on weekends when gates at the school were locked.
Ota stopped by Will Rogers on Saturday to begin the detail work on the wood of the tree, adding highlights to the grain and shadows cast by the shirt that the figure is wearing.
It’s been a while since he had to get over a fence rather than opening a door, but then again, Ota is more used to working in his studio — evoked by the box-like structure of the school house capping the tree — than getting out in the open air.
Times have changed, of course — now he can use a step ladder and not only has permission, but is encouraged to be there.
It took over a year to get to that point, Principal Steve Richardson said.
The project gained steam with the help of Adam Corlin, a home builder and third generation Santa Monican who got involved with Risk through a project to benefit local nonprofit Heal the Bay.
Since, Corlin has acted as a coordinator for the artist, and connected him with the school district. They hope to put a mural in every school.
It’s an opportunity to bring arts back into schools where they are being savaged on the budgetary chopping block, and also impart lessons to kids, Corlin said.
“It’s nice to let the kids see art being done before their eyes,” he said.
Corlin and Risk came to Richardson with the idea of painting a mural both to promote the arts and give back to the school district, which Corlin, and later his children, attended.
“We put together a plan that would be in the spirit of beautifying the school and bringing attention to the arts, promoting them and legal art versus tagging,” Richardson said.
With the decision made, Richardson had to sell it. He went to school employees, the Parent Teacher Association and governance council.
“We really did our due diligence in a year,” he said.
Erin Inatsugu, the Will Rogers PTA president, was already familiar with Risk’s work after a show in 2011 at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
She was excited by the idea of replacing the faded exteriors of the handball courts for something more colorful, and the opportunity to have kids watch the mural go up was not to be missed.
There was initial concern that the final product would be reminiscent of the graffiti seen throughout Los Angeles on the undersides of freeway overpasses or in dirty, dark alleys.
Those fears were dispelled, Inatsugu said.
“We’re honored that they wanted to kick this off at our school,” she said.
Much of what happened next was good timing.
Ota and Risk attended high school together on the Westside, and painted together for years before going their separate ways. While Risk continued with his graffiti work, Ota traded his spray can in for a brush.
He now teaches at both Santa Monica College and Otis College of Art and Design, and does projects and designs for major alternative clothing labels.
The two reconnected a few years ago after a 20-year hiatus, and despite Risk’s urging, Ota was hesitant to jump into the large-scale murals again.
“I finally said I was ready to do a mural and he said, ‘I’ve got one, let’s start tomorrow,’” Ota recalled.
Although things came together quickly, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing.
Rains came on Thursday, disrupting the paint that hadn’t quite set to the wall. They had to go through and press the water out of bubbles that had formed, and then blow-dry the paint down to make it adhere, Ota said.
Still, the artists hope they can get the whole project finished by Sunday, when they will put a coat of protective lacquer down so that students can continue to use the walls for their original purpose — handball.
Children that wandered up as the artists did their work Tuesday afternoon didn’t seem concerned about the possibility of throwing balls at artwork done by an internationally-renowned artist.
They even seemed happy to help with some constructive criticism, calling to Andy Hernandez, a former student of Ota’s who came to help, to make one of the birds on the tree blue.
“I wanted to do that anyway, so I said, ‘OK,’” Hernandez said.
As the school day came to an end and classes cleared out, Luis Cosio, a fifth grader at Will Rogers, approached the artists and asked for Risk’s autograph on a spray paint can, which he graciously supplied.
Cosio had already known about Risk, and was shocked to hear that the graffiti artist would be painting at his school. He already has a little experience with graffiti, and would like to hone his skills.
That’s exactly what Richardson hopes his students will get out of the project — inspiration.
“For kids who have natural gifts around the arts, it gives a sense that they can make a career out of their passion,” Richardson said.