Artist Cara Jane Murray works on her mural at the Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary School playground in July. It’s one of many murals Murray has painted in Sitka and Southeast Alaska. (Berett Wilber/KCAW)

Artist Cara Jane Murray’s colorful, swirling murals bring life to buildings around Southeast Alaska. Now, her latest piece is brightening one of Sitka’s elementary school playgrounds. A unique partnership between Murray, teachers and students inspired the artwork.

On rare, sunny afternoon, Cara Jane Murray stood on scaffolding in front of the nearly 500-square-foot mural she painted on the curved outside wall of the Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary School library. A chemical smell filled the air as she applied the first coat of polyurethane. The clear coat will protect the mural from Southeast Alaska’s rain, snow and sleet.

“There’s also things like the fact that it’s a mural at an elementary school, so you’re gonna get muddy fingers and chocolate milk from the lunch cart, you know whatever else,” she laughed. “I want to make sure that this lasts for a long time.”

Kids scrambled around on the nearby playground while we talked. One of the slides at the playground is boarded up, and the equipment is aging. Murray said she hopes the mural will bring renewed attention to the playground. 

“We create art in a space that otherwise didn’t have any, and it brings a new energy into that space,” she said. “It promotes saving up money or budgeting for infrastructure for making changes that are going to benefit the community, benefit the school in the long-term.”

A boarded-up slide at Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary School. “The thing about mural art is that It changes the whole vibe of the area,” she said. I mean prior to having this art up here on the wall, I heard a lot of people saying that the the playground was feeling sort of desolate. It’s aging.” (Berett Wilber/KCAW)

Flowers and animals pepper the mural’s background, but what really drew me in were the hands, painted in as many different skin tones as Murray could muster.

Murray said the inspiration for the mural came in part from recent local and national conversations around social change and accountability.

“There was a lot of change that was happening just in general. And the biggest one that came to mind for me was how do we advocate for racial equality, how do we start having those conversations, how do we start dealing with that within our community,” she said.

A school residency she did earlier this spring as part of the Arts, Culture, and Technology Integrated Teaching initiative was also a big part of the process. Murray worked with two teachers and their students to teach social and emotional learning through art. For example, they talked about how colors can represent emotion.

“I didn’t go to school for psychology or for early childhood development, but I feel like I have enough of an understanding having my own kids and also being an expressionist,” she said. “That’s what I do, that’s how I do it. I put a lot of who I am and what I connect with empathetically into my art.”

A photo of student artwork produced during the residency that Cara Jane Murray conducted in the spring with second and third graders. (Photo provided by Jessica Christianson, Sitka School District)

Megan Heathman teaches third grade. She invited Murray to lead her students to find deeper meaning in art.

“We decided to incorporate a lot of the social-emotional learning pieces that we had been working on in our classrooms already and throughout the school,” Heathman said. “So, the kids were able to work with how art incorporates emotions and how you can represent emotions through art.”

Murray’s residency was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, but she was still able to use what the students created as inspiration for the mural. After school closed, she continued to offer sessions virtually, showing the students her home studio, which second grade teacher Megan Pepper appreciated. Some of her students are interested in pursuing art as a career.

“Having artists in our school for the residencies is such a positive thing,” Pepper said. “You know, sometimes we need those outside sources to come in and share their craft. It might not be something that a specific teacher is skilled in and so we look to the community to bring that in.”

After around 20 minutes, Murray finished the first round of clear coat, inspecting the mural to make sure she didn’t miss a spot. She said she’d already had kids and adults tell her they’re empowered by the mural because it shows their skin tone.

“One day when I was down here there was a teacher whose son came up to me and he said that’s my hand and she showed me, and she was like, see, and I was like, that’s right. That is something that I don’t think we really have a lot of in Sitka, we just don’t,” she said.

“So, why not?”

Erin McKinstry is a Report for America Corps Member.