Arizona Mural Stirs Race Debate

School officials reverse decision to lighten boy's face.

June 11, 2010— -- In Prescott, Ariz., a school mural designed to encourage children to "go green" in their choice of transportation has had some unintended consequences: It's led to heated discussions about race.

The Miller Valley Elementary School sits on the corner of a busy intersection in Prescott, where the majority of residents are white. On one wall is "Go on Green," a mural commissioned by school authorities, depicting four schoolchildren riding their bikes or walking to escape the urban environment and embrace nature.

One child, painted after a real-life student named Mario, is Hispanic.

R.E. Wall, the director of Prescott's Downtown Mural Project, led the Mural Mice corps of artists to paint the mural. Once it was finished, school officials asked him to "lighten" the shadows on Mario's face.

Principal Jeff Lane, part of the school's mural committee, told, they "felt there were a few changes that needed to be done. They felt from across the street the shadows looked really dark, so they asked to have those lightened up."

Wall was reluctant. "From an artistic point of view if you lighten up the shadow you have to lighten up the face as well and that leads to a more Caucasian-looking person," he said. "We knew right off that this wasn't something that we wanted to do because this would distract from the child that was in the photograph."

He said he procrastinated in altering the mural until the committee came to him and said he had to do it.

The Mural Mice didn't begin lightening the mural until May 30, three to four weeks after they were originally asked. "We felt a weird feeling about [repainting]," Wall said. "We stepped off the scaffolding, walked away for a couple of days and then the media storm took place."

Local media coverage went viral. Charges of racism were lobbed at school officials.

Steve Blair, a city councilman for Prescott, was fired from his radio job at KYCA-AM for speaking out against the mural.

On Saturday, a crowd of more than 300 showed up to the campus to protest the lightening of the mural.

So school officials asked Wall and his artists to "return the mural to its original intent."

Mural Provokes Arizona Residents

Wall obliged. But before he finished repainting the mural on Wednesday, Wall found his car filled with signs and banners he had taken down from the scaffolding earlier that morning. With phrases like "Racism has no place in Prescott," the signs were evidence of what had become an active racial debate.

Since the controversy became widespread and he began repainting the mural to its original design, Wall said Mural Mice had experienced the worst demonstration of racism so far on Tuesday of this week -- with protesters and motorists that passed by yelling an array of racial slurs.

"We were pinned up onto the scaffolding and had groups of people down on the ground screaming at us and yelling at us while we were trying to fix the face," Wall said. "It was a lot of pressure, it made me nauseous."

On the final day, as the artists finished repainting the face back to its original color, the atmosphere was calmer than the preceding day, Wall said. Aside from the occasional car horns and shouts from motorists, most people who showed up were supporters of the mural and had come to see the progress the painters had made.

A Quieter Street Corner, but Controversy Continues

With Arizona already in the national spotlight for its controversial immigration law and banning of ethnic studies in public schools, Kevin Kapp, superintendent of Prescott Unified School District, said he believes the atmosphere surrounding those issues played a role in getting widespread attention for this controversy.

"I think the atmosphere in Arizona is very sensitive, and hypersensitive to immigration issues and minority issues ... that fed into it," Kapp said.

School officials have since apologized.

"We decided that the committee overstepped their bounds," Lane said. "We were trying to give our artistic opinion to the artists and it just didn't work well."

Mural Starts a Dialogue About Race

Councilman Blair has been slammed for comments he made on his radio show about the mural being used "to excite some sort of diversity power struggle that doesn't exist in Prescott" and a means to "promote minorities."

Although Blair declined to comment on the issue, he said in a press conference Tuesday that he would not resign from office.

"I started hearing [Blair] in early April taking issue with the students that were painted on the mural," said Paul Kantan, coordinator for the Safe Routes to School Program, one of the groups engaged in the concept for the mural. "He represents a viewpoint that understands this mural to be about dark-skinned children, and not about the students at this school."

However, Kapp said the four children pictured in the mural, a mix of white and minority students, represent the diversity of the school and Prescott as a whole.

Disregarding the allegations of racism, Lane said almost half of the children who attend Miller Valley are in fact minority students.

One thing is for sure -- people are talking about race in Prescott.

"Sometimes communities fail to talk about important issues such as diversity and bigotry and racism, and this mural has lead this beautiful little town of Prescott, Ariz. to have that discussion," Kapp said.

And to artist R.E. Wall, that's the greatest thing he could have asked.

"Dialogue is what's important here," Wall said. "The fact that this caused dialogue ... is the greatest satisfaction to the project." contributor Nathan O'Neal is a member of the Arizona State University ABC News on Campus bureau.