Seventeen Appleton teens – almost all of them people of color – are earning both school credit and money for their work on a mural that’ll beautify an Oneida Street neighborhood. It’ll be unveiled at an event Friday evening.
The project is part of an initiative called “Paint the City,” led by local artist Neo Medina.
“It stems from my interest in working with youth and doing something more restorative,” Medina said. “There’s so many different layers (to) art being a vehicle to transcend some of the barriers that stand in the way. That very much saved my life. I just try to give that back to as many kids as I can.”
Medina designed the mural modeled on flowers from local florist The Flower Mill as well as to depict young people of color in a positive light.
“Around here, people might have a certain idea, especially what Latino men look like,” he said. “So to see me out here, painting, doing some good in the community might begin some of those conversations around who we are as Latino people, and the things that we are capable of in the contributions we make to our community.”
Medina partnered with the Appleton Area School District to secure funding from the Mielke Family Foundation, Bright Ideas Fund and Appleton Education Foundation. The school district also provided funding for staff support.
Medina said the students have been working on the mural for two weeks. Each will earn a half credit for school and $400.
Medina, now 31, said he grew up in Sheboygan surrounded by drugs and violence. His mom encouraged him and his brother to go to college, which he started at the 2-year UW-Sheboygan campus there, with the idea to be an art teacher.
“I ended up staying in the same city and … just hanging out with people doing the same stuff,” he said. So he transferred to UW-Oshkosh, which didn’t change much.
“That same mentality that I lived with my whole life just followed me,” he said. While a student at Oshkosh, he got in a fight, broke someone’s jaw and ended up in jail and then on probation with a felony conviction. He was told he’d never be allowed to work with kids, so the dream of being an art teacher suddenly seemed out of reach.
It was having a kid of his own at the age of 20 that spurred a change.
“I turned it around completely and just dove into art even more,” he said. “That’s where I realized art is a platform.”
He finished his BFA degree in 2015 and moved to Appleton, where he’s been doing what he was told he’d never be allowed to do: working with kids in his job at the Boys and Girls Club of the Fox Valley and on projects like Paint the City. That felony has since been expunged.
The mural, on the side of Jersey Bagels at 2641 North Oneida Street in Appleton, will be unveiled in an event Friday evening from 5 – 8 pm.
Medina hopes the experience will provide a spark for the students.
“They don’t always feel like they’re a contributing member or their opinions matter, that they’re worthy of being loved out here,” he said. “It’s super cliche, but education is the thing that sets you free from some of the generational curses.”