Pinole Valley High School in the East Bay already has one big claim to fame: two members of the rock band Green Day were students there before they made it big. Now the school is earning a reputation for a different type of art, as its fast-growing collection of outdoor murals is transforming the campus — and the lives of its students.
But to newcomers, Pinole Valley High doesn’t look much like a hotbed of artistic creativity. Half the campus is a building site. The other half is a sprawl of squat mobile buildings. Principal Kibby Kleiman says his students and staff are stuck in the temporary structures for at least five years while the school undergoes renovations.
“Everything is in a portable,” Kleiman says. “My office is a portable. The bathrooms are portables. This book room, that library, are portable. There’s a multipurpose room that’s just kind of a bigger portable.”
When the school moved into the mobiles in 2014, Kleiman feared the uninspiring environment would lower morale, and even cause dropouts. Then art teacher Jan Barzottini came along, with bright ideas and a great sense of humor.
“There’s one kid this year who calls me Miss Fettuccini,” Barzottini jokes. “He has a whole realm of Italian foods that he calls me.”
Where most of her colleagues and students saw nothing but cheaply-constructed, cookie-cutter portables with walls the color of sludge, Barzottini saw a big, open canvas. She recruited students to cover the brown facades with reproductions of famous works of art.
“You see Roy De Forest on the right, you see a glimpse of Jasper Johns on the left, and you’ve got Diego Rivera right next to you,” Barzottini says as we tour the campus, checking out the many student murals that adorn the mobile walls. “So every time you turn a corner, there should be something that catches your eye and either identifies where you are or adds a little bit of color to your day.”
Even though the students are working with fairly rudimentary tools — house paint, brushes and canvases made out of wooden boards — Barzottini is proud of the care they have taken to recreate the masterworks.
“This is Diego Rivera,” Barzottini says as we pause in front of a student reproduction of the artist’s painting depicting two girls washing their hair outdoors in front of a field of sunflowers. “A lot of different blending techniques to get all the ripples in their skirts.”
At first, Barzottini focused on 20th century masterworks because they’re bold, colorful and relatively easy to paint. “And that gave the kids confidence,” she says.
Soon the students started seeking inspiration outside the realm of traditional museum art.
When I visit Barzottini’s classroom, I chat with 18-year-old student Jason Capuyan as he painstakingly recreates the intricate cover art from Green Day’s 1994 album Dookie. It’s a tribute to his musical heroes. “I listen to them a lot,” Capuyan says.
Capuyan spends his lunch breaks working on his mural and loves how art is transforming the campus. “The environment is a little more vivid now because we have more murals and bright colors popping up,” Capuyan says.
Principal Kleiman says around 150 students have participated in the project, including students who don’t even take art class.
One recent grad, Shaye Maxey, won a full ride scholarship to San Francisco’s Academy of Art University, partly as a result of her take on “Alice,” a famous 1915 portrait of a young girl by the Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani.
“This mural made me feel like I could accomplish a lot more than I thought I could beforehand,” Maxey says.
And in the ultimate sign of teen approval, students are snapping selfies in front of the murals and sharing them on Instagram.
Barzottini says there are around 40 works of art up right now and many more to come.
I ask the art teacher when she plans to finish the project.
“When there’s not another speck to fill when you turn a corner,” she responds. “I still see a million corners as we’re walking around. I think it’s going to be a while.”