District Removes Inspirational Murals from Bend School | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

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District Removes Inspirational Murals from Bend School

The Miller Elementary PTO paid a local artist to paint 19 murals inside the school. Less than a year later, the district painted over them, citing a breach of protocol.

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For a period of about 10 months, the walls of William E. Miller Elementary School in Bend were adorned with inspirational quotes and the original works of a local artist. In August, the murals were painted over.

In the summer of 2021, a teacher at Miller was feeling anxious about returning to school. Between the ongoing safety and socio-emotional concerns of teaching in the U.S. in the 21st Century, and COVID still looming large, fourth-grade teacher Stephanie Rodgers wanted to create something to uplift the school community.

"With this uncertainty, what could at least be certain was, I'm going to enter my school and smile, because of the art on the walls," Rodgers told the Source Weekly. "That was my vision."

Rodgers said she reached out to Miller Principal Jen Healy, who Rodgers said was enthusiastic about the prospect of commissioning local artist Teafly Peterson, known professionally as simply "Teafly," to create art inside the school.

Before of a mural painted inside Miller Elementary in Bend. Artist Teafly Peterson said she finds it ironic that in this instance, BLPS staff refrained from repairing the water stain on the ceiling but painted over the mural. Another coat of paint was later added. - COURTESY STEPHANIE RODGERS
  • Courtesy Stephanie Rodgers
  • Before of a mural painted inside Miller Elementary in Bend. Artist Teafly Peterson said she finds it ironic that in this instance, BLPS staff refrained from repairing the water stain on the ceiling but painted over the mural. Another coat of paint was later added.
An after of a mural painted inside Miller Elementary in Bend. Artist Teafly Peterson said she finds it ironic that in this instance, BLPS staff refrained from repairing the water stain on the ceiling but painted over the mural. Another coat of paint was later added. - COURTESY STEPHANIE RODGERS
  • Courtesy Stephanie Rodgers
  • An after of a mural painted inside Miller Elementary in Bend. Artist Teafly Peterson said she finds it ironic that in this instance, BLPS staff refrained from repairing the water stain on the ceiling but painted over the mural. Another coat of paint was later added.

"She said, yes—a resounding yes," Rodgers said of Healy's approval. "I mean, she didn't have to think even 10 seconds."

Healy did not respond to the Source's requests for comment, but emails obtained through a public records request confirm that in September 2021, Healy obtained approval from the Miller Parent-Teacher Organization to pay Peterson a fee of $3,080 for the mural project. Healy's emails also looped in Glen Carey, custodial engineer at Miller, informing him that Peterson would be in the building over the course of about six weekends. Painting on the weekends due to COVID protocols that disallowed visitors inside schools during school days, Peterson created 19 murals and other smaller works in classrooms, bathrooms and hallways, accompanied by quotes from people such as Dolly Parton and Maya Angelou. In each bathroom a mural stating, "You are loved" was painted backwards, so students would be able to read the phrase in the mirrors.

"For instance, the kindergarten mural is pretty basic, [saying] 'Be a rainbow in somebody else's cloud.' They all have to do with kindness," Rodgers said.

The response from staff and students, Rodgers said, was overwhelmingly positive.

"Every classroom toured the school with a specific reason, and that was to choose your favorite mural and accompanying quote. I have a vivid memory of turning around and saying something to one of my students and she just looked at me and said, 'Mrs. Rodgers, I just got the chills.' And I can't teach that," Rodgers said. "That's what art is. And that's what an inspirational quote does to a nine-year-old."

Xavi Agraz poses in front of a mural by Teafly depicting a Dolly Parton quote. Shared with permission from Liz Agraz. - COURTESY STEPHANIE RODGERS
  • Courtesy Stephanie Rodgers
  • Xavi Agraz poses in front of a mural by Teafly depicting a Dolly Parton quote. Shared with permission from Liz Agraz.

District concerns

In the spring of 2022, maintenance staff for Bend-La Pine Schools brought the mural project to the attention of Skip Offenhauser, executive director of Elementary Programs.

"I had discussions with our maintenance department and was reminded of our policy... regarding painting in our buildings," Offenhauser told the Source Weekly. BLPS' Requirements for Volunteer Painting include requirements around following "the established color scheme for each school and site," and restrict the use of things like "faux finishes, extravagant paint patterns, wallpaper, student handprints, excessive color contrasts, stenciling and borders," as well as instructions for wall prep, masking and painting.

Miller students composed thank-you notes to mural artist Teafly for her work inside Miller Elementary. - COURTESY STEPHANIE RODGERS
  • Courtesy Stephanie Rodgers
  • Miller students composed thank-you notes to mural artist Teafly for her work inside Miller Elementary.

Principal Healy did not respond to the Source's emails, but Offenhauser said Healy did not follow proper protocol in regard to the murals at Miller.

"The very first thing that we had to remind ourselves was that all painting projects—and there's many reasons embedded underneath it—all painting projects needed to be approved by Facilities," Offenhauser said. "I think what was coming into Jen's [Healy's] mind was more of painting rooms different colors and the policy was more in her head around that."

A thank-you note from a student to Teafly, published with parent permission. - COURTESY STEPHANIE RODGERS
  • Courtesy Stephanie Rodgers
  • A thank-you note from a student to Teafly, published with parent permission.

The official decision from BLPS: the murals would need to be painted over. As an alternative, the murals could be redone on canvas and hung around the school, emails between district staff show.

Between May and June of this year, maintenance and administrative staff for BLPS debated via email about who would inform Healy of the need to paint over the artworks. On June 24, an email from Offenhauser to Dan Dummit, maintenance director for BLPS, revealed Offenhauser's reservations about the project.

A student thank-you note to Teafly, published with parent permission. - COURTESY STEPHANIE RODGERS
  • Courtesy Stephanie Rodgers
  • A student thank-you note to Teafly, published with parent permission.

"...I did get a chance to walk the school on my own and I do have some reservations and questions about painting over the murals and see some challenges with reproducing them on canvas/boards and mounting them," Offenhauser wrote.

Another email on July 28 indicated that the district would allow Healy to select one mural "to keep" inside Miller.

When Rodgers, the fourth-grade teacher, entered the school in early August to begin prepping her classroom for the school year, all the murals were gone, minus one at the school's entrance. On Aug. 9, district officials began to craft communication "to staff and parents that explains things and next steps."

The artist's reaction

Artist Teafly Peterson told the Source Weekly that she learned about the painting over of the murals through a Facebook post Rodgers posted in early August. [Disclosure: Teafly has been a writer and artistic contributor to the Source Weekly on a number of occasions.]

"It's like this seven-layer cake of grief. It wasn't like they painted over it and made the walls nice," Peterson told the Source. "I was looking at pictures where it was just haphazardly painted over, and I think that probably added to the pain of it."

Members of the PTO who funded the project were likewise concerned.

"Especially after COVID—it just really wreaked havoc, I think, on mental health for kids and teachers alike, and it was just this wonderful bright, positive way of welcoming kids and teachers and staff back to the school. I thought it was a great use of funds," said Emily Pietrzak, president of the Miller PTO during the 2020-21 school year. "When I heard that the district took the time and budgeted to paint over them, I thought, you know, there's a larger problem in the district, in how they solve issues, and I think this was a really poor way of handling a situation that they weren't happy with."

Rodgers, the teacher, also expressed concerns about the message sent to kids about conflict resolution. "I don't know what to say," Rodgers said. "Your art has been painted over because of a rule. OK, so we broke the rule. Well then, let's talk about the rule and maybe that rule needs to be changed."

Peterson also sees it as an equity issue.

"This is one of the most affluent neighborhoods in our community, and they were treated this way? What's happening in our community where the parents don't have the resources or don't have the time available to advocate for their kids on this level?" she said. "We force them to do these things... we make them duck and cover—do their active shooter drills, and the little bit of joy that was on their walls to help them through this process is now gone."

A new project

BLPS officials did not provide an estimate of the time and material costs incurred by the district for the repainting, but said that it used "standard paint" that the district uses in all buildings, and that the job was done by maintenance staff.

"This was a tough situation at all levels," BLPS Superintendent Steve Cook told the Source. "We've learned from this, and we're going to get it resolved." BLPS officials say they plan to have the murals reproduced on canvas or another material so that the art can be replaced at Miller, but it's not clear who will pay for the artist's time.

"I'm actually kind of happy to get the opportunity to recreate the art with people because it's so sad, the fact that kids don't have it there," Peterson said.

Pietrzak, whose kids have since aged out of Miller, said paying for the project with PTO funds would be a tough call.

"Even though, you know, the ultimate outcome is, 'we want this here for the kids to see,' you know, just the whole principle of the thing of, we have to fundraise for this again. That's not fair, you know?" Pietrzak said.

"I was also thinking, God, somebody walked in with a bucket of paint and a roller and painted over, 'You are loved.'"

About The Author

Nicole Vulcan

Nicole Vulcan has been editor of the Source since 2016. While the pandemic reduced "hobbies" to "aspirations," you can mostly find her raising chickens, walking dogs, riding all the bikes and attempting to turn a high desert scrap of land into a permaculture oasis. (Progress: slow.)

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