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Student artist commemorates grad class with mural

By Hannah Scott, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Published 3:48 PDT, Thu April 29, 2021

Last Updated: 2:13 PDT, Wed May 12, 2021

Teenage artist Leo Li will leave a legacy at his school when he graduates this year.

For the last few months, his spare time has been consumed with painting a large five-by-five foot mural to commemorate his fellow graduates and the challenges they’ve faced this year. Chosen from an open call by the grad committee, the Steveston-London secondary Grade 12 student is headed to Cornell University to study architecture in the fall.

“For as long as I can remember, I’ve been an artist,” says Leo. “In Grade 10 my lifelong love of art and design also drew me to pursue a career in architecture, which is an art that fundamentally facilitates living and aids society.”

The plan, according to grad committee teacher sponsor Jeff Mah, is for each subsequent graduating class to keep the tradition going by creating its own mural.

“We hit one out of the park with (Leo),” Mah says.

The painting was created over several months in the school hallway outside Mah’s classroom. Leo says he appreciated being able to paint in the school which provided a connection between the work and school community, as well as interacting with students and staff who passed by him while he was painting.

“I savoured these convening moments,” Leo adds.

After Leo finished painting, members of the graduating class signed their names around the outside of the painting. Grad committee president Shirley Li notes it was a challenge to incorporate pandemic protocols into the mural signing.

“Not all of the grads are in school at once, which means we had to set up a lunchtime signing period and an after school signing period,” she says. “We had to sanitize all the pens used and stand beside the mural at all times. I myself found that reminding the grads to maintain social distance has been the most challenging part. Most arrive with their friends to sign the mural so they weren’t always socially distanced from each other—trying to separate them was truly a challenge.”

But despite the challenges, the painting was appreciated by those who saw it, and Mah says it was good to be able to start a new positive tradition this year and honour Grade 12 students whose milestone year looked very different. Despite the cancellation of many typical events—the winter dinner dance, the after-grad celebration, and even regularly scheduled classes and opportunities to connect—the painting helped create a sense of connection.

“(The painting) sat outside for months and no kid ever toyed with it,” says Mah. “People would just walk by and look at it, and it was a real community feeling because kids would ask questions about it.”

The painting’s background, featuring a blurred image of the school building and masks flying through the sky, was inspired by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai.

“Throughout the sky, masks fly like birds, which replaces the concept of restraint usually associated with our face coverings with the idea of liberation,” Leo says.

The running figures in the foreground are based on the paintings of Leo’s artistic mentor Jianjun An, a Chinese artist and designer who runs an art school in Richmond. Leo says the bold colours and “expressive linework” of the figures represents the persistent and undefeatable energy of his fellow graduates.

“Through illustrating these figures, I hope to be able to capture a small portion of the collective optimistic drive that defines the grads of 2021, instead of portraying a muted reflection on adversity,” says Leo.

Shirley says the committee was fascinated by Leo’s artistic ability, as well as the symbolism in his proposal.

“In particular, what stood out to us about his art was the background with the flying masks, and how the grads were setting themselves free as they run off to the distance,” says Shirley.

She says it was inspiring to be able to watch Leo’s painting progress day by day, and it brought her a sense of hope that her peers will be able to overcome the challenges of the pandemic. That’s a sentiment echoed by Leo when asked about the legacy left by the project.

“I hope that the painting not only reminds students of the power of art, but also prompts their own thinking of what values and traits define themselves, and what their aspirations could be. The artwork itself is one of many examples of efforts within the Steveston-London community to make the days during the pandemic school year—however different and alienating—hopeful and encouraging.”


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