From Awe-Inspiring Murals to White Walls in Local Schools

Katie Fernstrom’s mural, “Underwater Alaska,” before it was painted over at Hilltop Elementary School in Canfield. Photo courtesy of Katie Fernstrom.

Students at Hilltop Elementary School in Canfield looked forward to the day they entered second grade so they could walk through the hall with the infamous large oceanic mural titled “Underwater Alaska.”

Katie Fernstrom, a Canfield High School and Youngstown State University graduate, created the mural in the summer of 2013, spending countless hours and using gallons of paint to make detailed sea lions and orcas.

But all that is left of the mural is a white wall and a photo of the creation on Fernstrom’s Facebook profile that reads, “Rest in Peace.”’

Something so beautiful and intricate was gone overnight because of the administration’s poor decision.

“No longer will the children in that school be able to look up at this painting with awe-inspired faces. No longer will classroom after classroom take pictures with it or run their hands along the wall, as if they could swim along with the animals I painted,” she said in a Facebook post.

Fernstrom was unaware the mural would be painted over until the deed was done. Despite every hour spent on this creation, a memory is the only thing left for those who were greeted by it walking through the hall every day.

But this isn’t the first time the Mahoning Valley has suffered the loss of talented artists’ murals in schools.

Howland High School was full of various murals students painted, each with their own theme. From Super Mario Bros. to a recreation of “The Persistence of Memory” by Salvador Dalí, the creations caught the eyes of students until those too were wrongly painted over.

Aubrey Adams, a Howland High School graduate, said a piece of Howland was lost after the riddance of the murals.

“Painting over all of them happened my senior year [March 2019], which was the year I planned on creating one,” she said. “I know the school attempted to preserve the murals by creating a collage of photos of every one, but it wasn’t until they were all painted over that [students] realized they missed a few.”

Adams believed it was the best feature of the high school, as visiting students and parents from other districts always complimented the artists’ work.

“I did personally know quite a few students who created them, some as early as two years ago, which can even be more frustrating considering how new the [murals were,]” she said. “Most were dated, and you were able to see how far back some murals were made, such as the 1980s.”

Just as academics are crucial to shaping the minds of students, the arts are equally important.

From a young age, students learn from oversized books that crowd their bookbags, but creating art gives a moment of expression. Art is how we say who we are.

A white wall where these intricate murals once stood does not say anything. All it says is that administrations are OK with erasing the work an artist can never recreate the exact same way again. 

It is also disappointing to see schools with developed band, art and theater programs behave this way. If a school claims to be a strong advocate of the arts through these programs, what message is sent when erasing art that the school wanted in the first place?