VNA PRESENTS: Jose De Diego School, Wynwood – Robert De Los Rios Interview

Mar 03, 2016

The Jose De Diego Middle School sits just outside of the Wynwood arts district in Miami. Although Wynwood itself is gentrifying quickly, the areas around it, the areas that feed the school, like Overtown, are still fairly impoverished, tuff, and derelict. The JDD has little to no money for arts teachers, and as a result the school has no art programs. As a reaction to this, the school is now graced with over 80 murals created by Street Artists and Graffiti Artists from around the world. This massive on-going mural project is organized in large part by Robert De Los Rios as part of his RAW (Reimagining the Arts in Wynwood) effort. De Los Rios sat down with our man Hyland Mather and ate some Cuban food at the old school local’s diner, Enriqueta’s, where Rios did the ordering. 


Hyland: Sup Robert. Let’s get some background going. Where did you grow up?
Robert: Hialeah, Florida.


H: What brought you into Wynwood?
R: The artwork, man. It’s one of the biggest art galleries on earth and it’s always ‘updating’.


H: How long have you been involved in the mural making scene down here?
R: About 5 years now directly, before that I was down here taking lots of pictures.


H: You’ve made quite an impact in that short time. Let’s take just the last five years…you must have seen Wynwood changing quickly, tell me a bit about that. What do you like about it, what do you not like?
R: It’s hard to really describe how this place is changing. In some ways, it’s a great thing, in others, fucking horrible. Personally, I love the idea that anybody can come here and feel inspired enough to leave something behind for everybody to enjoy/not enjoy. Once you’ve left something on our walls, street signs, sidewalks, in our galleries, etc., it no longer just belongs to the artist, but to the city and the people who live in it. It’s out there for everybody to see now. I love the courage of creation. However, all of a sudden, you have these people moving in, property buyers, that have never had anything to do with Wynwood, and they feel entitled to free art. The dominating attitude of new property owners and developers in Wynwood is ‘Hey, here is somewhere for you to paint and get exposure, isn’t that great of me to give this to you!’ Actually though, it’s totally the other way around, the property value that these people are buying is created by the artists that made the area awesome, the ‘mover inners’ need to be humble about that, and pay the artists for new work. It’s a common gentrification bummer.


H: Let’s jump right into some talk about the Jose De Diego. You’ve been key in organizing the making of over 80 murals at the Middle School. Everything I read on the Internet about the JDD is a puff piece. Basically heralding the niceties of the project. I get that ‘Oprah’ style approach, and for sure it is nice for the students, the teachers and the community, but I don’t think this puffy approach is exactly what needs to be brought to light. At the end of the day, this is a school with tons of at risk students, rates poorly in Statewide testing, and has no internal arts funding to speak of. What inspired you to get involved? 
R: A friend of mine, Patrick Walsh, used to run an organization called the Wynwood Arts District Association (WADA) and was contacted by the Principal of JDD, Dr April Williams. She had just taken over Principal duties at the school a few months prior and couldn’t understand why the school wasn’t involved more with the art community. Patrick, who has known of my work with the community, reached out to me saying we should go visit the Principal and figure out how we can all work together in some sort of way. When we arrive for our meeting, Dr Williams decided to give us a tour of the school. There was an unfortunate common theme in the school – ‘Here we have this massive art class, with all this material, but no teacher. Over here, we have this music room, with all of these brand-new electric pianos, but no teacher. Over here we have this massive dance room, but no dance teacher.’ For a city that is known worldwide for being one of the biggest art destinations on the planet for both the fine art and the Urban Arts scene, it blew our minds that the middle school that belongs to that community, had no teachers to teach these art options. They hadn’t had teachers for these programs, for the five years prior. The school just lacks the funding to afford teachers for these classes. Why? I can’t possibly tell you. The cynic in me definitely has a few ideas, but then again they’re just my opinions, but if you go to some areas in this County that aren’t as poor, to see if their schools are missing all of these options. They’re not. The fact that not five blocks away from JDD there are galleries selling pieces of art for tens of thousands of dollars, but JDD couldn’t afford a single art teacher for a year, that was and is incredibly disturbing. The three of us sat down and decided we needed to do something about it. These kids, who grew up in an area known for crime, drugs, abuse of all kinds, are the ones who need these options the most. That’s what started the RAW (Reimagining the Arts in Wynwood) Project.


H: When I was installing my Lost Object mural at the JDD last December during Art Basel (my total honor), I had the privilege to meet Dr Williams, she’s pretty great. You can tell she’s so good for that school, and she’s also super comfortable with the idea that artists are working in there, sometimes around the clock, like I was. She’s used to it by now, the whole staff is, it feels very ‘old hat’ comfortable to work there. Everyone must have been a little nervous when the project started though. When did the first murals start going up at the JDD? Who was the first artist to paint?
R: We started the project in May of 2014, contacting artists from around the world, telling them about the school, providing them with an opportunity to do something great for the community they’ve been apart of for some years now. A way to truly give back to the city that’s given them a home for their personal artistic expression, year round. We hit up local galleries (Robert Fontaine Gallery, Primary Projects, Gregg Shienbaum Gallery, Spinello Projects), restaurants (Suviche) and community groups (WADA, Product 81, Wynwood Life, KOBRA Paint), to donate some money and materials for us to be able to rent or purchase equipment needed for the project. They embraced this project as much as the artists and donated what they could to help make this happen. After all, they’ve all gained tons from being a part of this community, one they helped shape into what it’s become, so of course they would want to help. It’s their home, too. Very first mural was painted by Ahol Sniffs Glue in mid November of that same year. 


H: Some of the murals are pretty graphic and have heavy themes, like D*Face’s mural with the Zombie kissing the hottie, and MTO’s giant kid with the Dunce cap standing in the corner. I’m sure the kids love these pieces, but I also think that if these designs had to be approved through a committee they may never have seen the light of day. How are you able to achieve such creative freedom for the artists that are contributing to the project?
R: I give 2 different people the credit for that. First person, is Dr Williams, her thinking is who is she to tell an artist what he or she can create? They’re the artist, so it’s their vision. Of course, every single artist understood they were painting a middle school, with kids who are in the 11-14-year old age bracket, so they were extremely respectful of that. We asked 2 things of each artist. This leads me into the 2nd person I give credit to, the artists themselves. They all understood where they were painting and completely respected that. As far as the kissing face, or the boy in the corner, I guess it’s up to the person looking at it to determine if it’s appropriate or not, but kissing isn’t a bad thing. As for the boy in the corner, painted by MTO, I think that any worry I had for that piece being a bit too much, was when I heard that the majority of the teachers and some people I know that work in the administration offices consider it a favorite. Also, what’s the harm in telling this truth? The artist, the arts in the school, they are in timeout. Having no teachers for art is paramount to putting the creative spirit in the corner. It’s a smart piece.


H: This is a loaded series of questions, as it’s obvious to me that the kids benefit from the project, but how do you think the mural making process is affecting the kids at the school? What do you see when you see the kids watching the artists making these monolithic sized works? Do the artists make good role models and teachers for these kids?
 R: What I’ve seen with the kids is pretty amazing. First of all, many of the murals on the interior courtyard were actually painted with the children, so they helped out. That experience with the artists is very inspiring and confidence building. What I’ve also seen many times with my own eyes is kids sitting in front of the finished murals and learning to draw or sketching. The students also write thank you notes to the artists. Because I’m always around the school giving tours, I also field questions from these kids all the time, ‘Where is this artist from?’ ‘Which artists are girls?’ ‘How did so and so get way up there?’ Just all kinds of questions and interest that wouldn’t occur if the art wasn’t there. Also, just speaking from my own way of thinking, if you gave me the chance to go see the Sistine Chapel, I would of course love that, but if you gave me the chance to watch it being made, I would love that even more. The kids love watching the murals being made – our biggest problem with the kids being present for the process is that they don’t want to go to lunch, they want to stay and watch the artists working. As far as the school itself, attendance is up, behavior is better, grades are up, more kids enrolling. I mean, it’s not the only reason the school is getting better, Dr Williams is making as many great changes as possible, but it’s definitely a contributing force. These kids take pride in their school now. As far as the artists being role models, to me, a role model is somebody who does great things, somebody whose actions do good for others. So, yeah.


H: What is the legacy for the kids? What lessons do they take from this program into their future?
R: It’s not about leaving a legacy, my man. It’s about giving these kids the options they should already have. How do you know if a kid wants to be an artist, or a musician, or an athlete, unless you expose them to it? The benefit will always be the option.


H: I know there was mention of a fundraising effort to raise about $500k, so that the school could have a sustainable arts program. What is the status of that?
R: So far, not good. For some reason or another, it’s been hard securing funding for this. This project has so many ‘supporters’, but not many with a single buck to give for the program. Ok. So what can I do? We’re not begging anybody for anything. People give if they mean it. It really does get to me, look at this project, this project deserves funding.


H: The basic idea behind the JDD is amazing and noble: Beautifying schools in derelict neighborhoods. Is this something you could see as a nationwide or worldwide program? What would that look like to you?
R: I would love to see this go nationwide! But remember, the point of this isn’t to paint walls just because they’re blank canvases. The point is to shine a light on the schools that need help. Whatever they need help for, it doesn’t matter. It’s the second home to your child, so how do you not take care of that? In JDD’s case, we felt helping to give them a proper Arts curriculum would be a great addition to their education. We want to see that happen.


H: The Favela Painting guys often hear this critique, ‘If you just make it look pretty, then there is less reason to make real changes’. With the JDD, you’ve got this situation where there is no arts funding and now a community has risen up around that problem to create it’s own solution. How do you deal with this idea that by affecting a solution, you might also be contributing to the problem?
R: We don’t. We do our best with what we believe to be right. We just want to help better our city, man.


H: If someone wants to get involved and help out with funding for the project, where should they go?

R: Any person can donate direct to the project at either of these two places: /


H: Robert, I have to tell you the JDD is honestly one of the most amazing projects I’ve ever been involved in and it is a total honor to contribute to it. Thanks for the interview, thanks for the Cuban food and keep up the good work.
R: My man, a pleasure.


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