The school, Florence Crittenton, commissioned mural artist Julia Rose Morgan to fire up her cans of spray paint and transform the exterior of the school into a work of art.
The alternative high school in my town is a drab building located along a busy road. There’s an unkempt sports field off to one side bordering a tiny parking lot. From a visual standpoint it’s as if this school goes out of its way to be as uninviting as possible. And unlike every other school in my city, this particular school doesn’t even have a reduced traffic speed “School Zone” safety area. Each time I drive past the school I think, When the district doesn’t even ask drivers to reduce their speed in the vicinity of the school, how can they pretend that they truly care about these kids?
This is the school where the teen parents in my city go while their children are cared for in the small on-site daycare.
A few weeks ago a friend sent me a link to an alternative high school in Denver specifically for teen moms. I clicked on the link expecting to see the same institutional setting more reminiscent of a prison than an empowering learning environment. Instead I was greeted by the most visually stunning school building I have ever seen.
The school, Florence Crittenton, commissioned mural artist Julia Rose Morgan to fire up her cans of spray paint and transform the exterior of the school into a work of art. Florence Crittenton high schooled evolved from the Florence Crittenton Mission—founded in 1893—whose primary purpose was to house pregnant teens and help them gain vocational skills. In 1984 Florence Crittenton Services entered into a partnership with Denver Public Schools and became one of the few schools in the United States for teen parents with an integrated model of education, child care, prenatal care, and social-worker support.
When the nonprofit school decided they wanted to invest in creating a beautiful place for the students they reached out to the graffiti and public street art festival, Colorado Crush, in search of artists. They spoke to several artists before they found Julia. “They talked to about four or five different artists with this project in mind, but were not finding the right fit. I was basically like Plan C,” Julia laughed. “They liked my style and were really stoked that I’m a young female artist,” she said.
Julia and her two sisters were raised by their artist single mom moving every couple years and more or less raising themselves.
By the time Julia was twelve she and one of her sisters had begun selling felted dolls to pay for things like contact lenses, school field trips, and clothes. When Julia was fourteen her mom moved to Denmark leaving her children behind. Julia went to live with her father and by sixteen she was on her own. Julia’s tumultuous childhood led her to battle an eating disorder and to seek out an alternative charter school as a way of complete her own high school education. When Florence Crittenton contacted Julia she felt an instant connection to the school and the students.
“I was overjoyed that I was asked to create this mural. I’m passionate about putting my artistic energy to serve women and youth, so this project felt like it was meant to be. And just the fact that they were willing to let someone spray paint a whole mural on their wall showed some incredibly awesome things about their school. I was pretty impressed that they were taking art as a serious investment.”
The school wanted the students to help design the mural and so Julia became involved in a three-way negotiation between herself, the school administration, and the students to design the mural. Originally Julia says she proposed a mural with paintings of “doctor moms and women accomplishing their life goals with babies on their hips.” The administration was pleased, but the girls had a different idea in mind.
“The girls were pretty much like, ah that’s all nice and good, but we just want to graduate and we want to sleep someday,” laughed Julia. “They wanted to see someone breastfeeding, they wanted to see C-section scars, they wanted the real stuff.”
So with the input of the students Julia redesigned the mural to include a Dia de los Muertos Goddess breast feeding. “The administration approved it until the day that I was truly laying down the paint and then they were like, oh we don’t know about the breastfeeding and we don’t know about the cultural aspect,” she said.
Julia was disappointed that the school administration wouldn’t allow a breast feeding mother to be included in the mural. “If not here, where? But we live in capitalism so I understand that they have to walk that line in order to be able to continue to bring all that they do to the community. They had to keep their donors in mind,” she said.
In the end Julia was able to come up with a design that pleased both the students and the administration. Julia is proud that she was able to be a part of creating a piece of art to honor the amazing mothers and their children at the Florence Crittenton school.
“Florence Crittenton is a beacon of light tucked away in a south west Denver neighborhood. The mural is now a brightly colorful representation of their values, as well as a gift to the faculty and the many students that have attended over the years working to better society and themselves from the inside out. Being a part of this meant so much to me because women worldwide are denied almost altogether for their ‘woman-ness’; their essential biological power to create and sustain life, unless wielded at the currently socially acceptable age and religious expectations, because it is incongruent with our capitalist consumerist society and the work-your-life-away agendas,” she said.
Check out more of Julia’s work on Instagram @aerose_art.
Nina Packebush is a grown-up teen mama and Young Adult author. Her novel, Girls Like Me, about a badass queer teen mama, will be out in November published by Bink Books. Check out her blog at: wehaveraisedpresidents.org