An electric lift sits quietly in the corner of a school lot on NW 29th Street. Empty spray paint cans jingle inside clear plastic bags hanging from the orange machine. Nearby, a building's lights illuminate a half-finished mural by celebrated street artist Shepard Fairey. It’s the Monday evening before Miami Art Week, and Eneida M. Hartner Elementary is setting the scene for the annual celebration the only way possible: through art.
Robert de los Rios cofounded the RAW (Re-imagining the Arts Worldwide) Project in 2014 with his partner Audrey Sykes. The mission of the organization is to bring art into Miami's communities by working with local schools. The pair’s first undertaking was Jose de Diego Middle School near Allapattah — just a few blocks from the spot where de los Rios now stands outside Hartner Elementary in Wynwood.
“RAW Project is a project that we founded to work with underfunded and underutilized public schools,” de los Rios explains. “We want to try to make those schools as great as they can be.”
The impact a few simple works of art can make is astounding. Shortly after RAW Project transformed the exterior of Jose de Diego, the middle school went from losing students every year to now being at full capacity.
“There’s nothing negative about what we’re doing... Why is it that we have a school system that doesn’t give these schools what they need [to sustain an arts program]?" de los Rios says passionately. "Why do outside people have to make this happen, and how is it that we don’t get the support we need to do this in every school?”
In the five short years since its inception, RAW Project has beautified nine schools: four in Miami-Dade County and five in Denver, Colorado.
Hartner Elementary's murals were originally painted in 2016, but due to construction, the walls needed to be rebuilt and repainted. The exterior courtyard walls were covered in fresh white paint, and many of the original artists, including Fairey, were invited to once again fill the walls with their art.
In addition to spearheading the mural aspect, RAW Projects also works with the schools to teach art education in the classroom. “We do programs at the school and bring artists to do workshops with the kids. It’s anything we can do that will help build the art curriculum in these schools,” de los Rios says.
RAW Project secures sponsors, such as Guardian Watch, for funding and collects donations from the community to make the magic happen. Because the artists all donate their time and work, de los Rios tries to make good use of the influx of talent during Miami Art Week.
“We live in a city that hosts one of the world’s largest and greatest art festivals. [Visiting artists] see the work we’ve been doing and want to get involved," he says. "We have access to some of the greatest artists in the world who want to do good with their work.”
De los Rios’ eyes light up as he looks around the empty school lot and takes a deep breath before rattling off a list of participating artists and their planned murals. Thirty-one artists — including Fin Dac, Case Maclaim, Mr. June, and Fairey — are scheduled to paint.
“It’s great to be back,” Fairey says as he stands in the shade during a break from painting. It’s now Tuesday afternoon, and behind him, schoolchildren run and laugh. “I think that a large-scale artwork for kids at a school just emphasizes the value of art and creativity and [interacts] with students in a really easy to understand, accessible way.”
Fairey is painting on the same wall where he created his 2016 mural, but this one is something completely new. A large black-and-white eye protrudes from a teal globe. The artist explains the work is about “treating the Earth well and being good to this planet that is a fragile thing we live on and can’t take for granted.”
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He adds, “Public art, to me, is the most important part of my practice because I want art to be as democratic as possible. I don’t think that art should just be in elite spaces like galleries or museums... When people see art in public, it reminds them that public spaces can be used for personal expression or community dialogue, and I think there’s tremendous value in that.”
After the paint dries at Hartner Elementary, de los Rios and Sykes will head to the West Coast to beautify their first high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District in May 2020.
“Yes, this is for the kids, but this is also for the community,” de los Rios says. “We’re not painting a children’s book here; we’re trying to make something the whole community can appreciate.”