- Park Forest Elementary
- Park Forest Elementary School
State High Unity in Diversity Mural
Efforts to promote unity and diversity at State High recently hit a brick wall. But in this case, that meant progress.
This spring, Art Club/National Art Honor Society members unveiled a vivid outdoor amphitheater mural titled “Unity in Diversity,” celebrating students’ backgrounds, heritages and cultures and inspired by this year's school theme, “Unity is Key in 2023.”
Under the direction of art teacher Maure Irwin-Furmanek, members invited all students to paint personally-meaningful images related to the theme, with 50 artists eventually contributing. Individual acrylic paintings on newsprint paper, attached to two brick walls with wheat paste, comprise the installation, making it weather-resistant but not permanent — an engaging affirmation of State High’s commitment to a welcoming, inclusive environment.
“Because our school is so diverse, we wanted to represent how we find unity within that diversity,” a statement from the club and society officers reads. “Each and every student has had the opportunity to contribute to the mural, therefore encouraging collaboration and celebration among the student body. We may be different from each other but we all find common ground through attending State High.”
Additionally, close to 200 students made individual handprints that float throughout the mural joining bubbles and two giant purple hands forming a heart as unifying elements. The hands especially draw people, as when two girls posed for a selfie beneath them, prompting Irwin-Furmanek to say, “This is what we were hoping people would do.”
“We originally were going to have just seniors do the handprints, but to follow along with the idea of unity, we wanted everyone to have a part of it, so we opened it up to the entire school,” said senior Elaina Martin, the club/honor society vice president.
Students began envisioning a mural project similar to the large downtown State College pieces in the 2021-2022 school year, but the idea didn’t get off the ground until last fall. One boost was a grant Irwin-Furmanek secured through the Mardi Lowry McDonough ‘87 Student Opportunities Grant Program administered by the State College Area School District Education Foundation. Advice and encouragement came from Lee Ann Jeffries, the Downtown State College Improvement District executive director, who explained the process behind the downtown acrylic murals.
“It was a really long process to get it started, but it turned out well,” said junior Saylor Milhomme, the club/society treasurer.
In October, students began painting after choosing to center the project around the school’s unity theme.
“That’s what grounded the mural and sent us in the right direction,” senior Zander Faust said.
During the school year, they also held two events — one over lunch, the other coinciding with a day devoted to mental health — to create the handprints. Photoshop helped them decide how to arrange the components.
In addition to eye-catching art, the mural depicts a QR code for accessing a site with artist statements for each of the mural’s images. By scanning the code, viewers can understand the reasons for each piece.
“Each student wrote their statement, how their art represents their heritage, culture, tradition or belief, and then how that connects with how they feel about unity and diversity,” Irwin-Furmanek said.
In keeping with the mural’s theme, the artwork depicts a wide range of images and perspectives. To honor his ties to Nigeria, senior Tio Ogunranti painted a portrait of Lagbaja, a legendary Nigerian saxophonist.
“I decided to encompass my culture and specific aspects of my life into this piece of art so I could express what makes Nigeria special,” he said. “Nigeria is known for music, so I thought the best way of putting that out there was a painting of a musician.”
Martin painted a pine tree to represent her and her family’s love for the outdoors.
“That kind of reflects being grounded in my own culture,” she said. “My family does a lot of hiking, so that played into it. It’s something that’s important to me, so I think it was a really great place to show that.”
For her part, Milhomme chose to depict hydrangeas, her mother’s favorite flowers.
“I liked the idea of personal connection, having a way for everyone to be connected in some way,” she said of the mural’s concept. “I also liked the idea of the hands, how we had students do that who weren’t in art so everyone is a part of it, in some way. I did one for my mom because I love her and I know that people love their parents or guardians or whoever they look up to, so that’s another way to connect.”
An intricate Celtic cross links Faust’s Irish heritage and Christian faith. A committed artist, he was drawn to the mural as an International Baccalaureate student needing to complete a service learning project.
“What we’re doing is so cool, how it brings everyone together and gets the whole school involved,” he said. “Everyone can speak to what they think unity and diversity are. I like how in art you can express a feeling and emotion through a means other than words, so I think what we’ve achieved here is really special.”
By Chris Rosenblum
Photos by Nabil K. Mark & submitted
Posted May 23, 2023