Like many 11th grade students, Evanah Torres sometimes finds herself overwhelmed by school work on top of choir practice and other extracurriculars.
Yet, as she paints a wooden fence across from Riverview High School each afternoon, it doesn’t feel like work. It's just another way to showcase her artistic abilities.
“I get to express myself, and I also get to show it to people who are passing by,” said Torres, whose panel of the fence features a sunset surrounded with orange sky and waters of gradated blue. “It makes me feel happy that I can bring that little bit of joy to others. And it also brings joy to me.”
Being chosen to paint the mural alongside nine other students was an opportunity she didn’t expect — not only because art opportunities were difficult to come by in her former home in Puerto Rico, but also because murals are new territory for Riverview High School.
That, and this project was initiated at the request of a homeowner.
Tom Cole had long thought about adding a mural to the fence alongside the Proctor Road home where he has lived for 12 years with his girlfriend Nicole Rossler. However, it was Hurricane Ian that resulted in the idea becoming a reality.
After the storm forced him to install a brand-new fence, what better time was there to have someone paint it?
He reached out to Riverview High School and connected with ceramics instructor Caiti Bauer.
Bauer was also looking to bring a touch of color to a campus that she said is otherwise made up of largely white walls.
She said the fence will be a step toward bringing murals to the school grounds, an initiative for which she has now gained approval from Principal Erin Haughey.
Since the beginning of 2023, Bauer has been working with Cole on the project, which involves students each painting one of the 10 panels of the 38-square-foot section of fence.
The project will end with Cole awarding $500 to the mural panel that students select as the winner in a vote to be held before the end of the school year on May 26.
A mural is born
After Cole and Bauer connected, the project unfolded rapidly.
“I was absolutely amazed at the response Riverview gave,” Cole said, complimenting the work of Bauer and Haughey.
There was an application period of roughly three months in which students could submit their suggested designs for the panels. Cole then selected the top 10 designs.
Cole said in a world in which lots of hatred and negativity is seen on social media and on the news, he wants to show people the good in the community through the actions of the students.
“Kids should be able to be outside, do what they love to do, express themselves, and do something that people appreciate," he said.
Bauer said based on the insistence of Cole, a graduate of Sarasota High School, the purpose of the display is to represent not only Riverview High School, but all of Sarasota. Therefore, no imagery specific to Riverview was included.
Bauer and Cole also said the display deliberately avoids anything polarizing or political, focusing on celebrating the location of Sarasota.
The work is the reward
Each afternoon since early April, students have headed to the fence and have often painted on weekends. Bauer accompanies students, and Cole occasionally steps outside to speak with them.
While students lead the creation of their panels, other student volunteers provide assistance, helping to fill in certain areas and perform other tasks designated by the panel designer.
Everyone will receive around 50 volunteer hours for the project, but multiple students said contributing to the mural was itself a reward.
“This is a great opportunity because I have two more years at Riverview, and I want to help spread inspiration throughout the community by doing art that everyone can see for years to come,” said Bridget Weccele, a 10th-grade student.
Weccele said she has been an artist since elementary school, and became involved because she is a member of the National Art Honor Society. Outside of the mural, she paints frequently, and also enjoys sketching and doodling.
Her panel in the mural mimics a broken wall, through which a sunset can be seen.
“Art really is like a language,” she said. “It’s able to express a lot, and I feel very connected to art because I’m able to express whatever I want.”
Tenth grader Izzy Martinez, who is helping with Torres’ section of the mural and practices art as a hobby, likewise said she admired the permanence of the display.
“I like the fact that we’re painting this here, and I’ll be able to look back on it if it’s still there, she said. “I feel like it’s really cool for people to be able to see our artwork.”
Torres said she wasn’t concerned about receiving an award.
“If I won the $500, it would be awesome, it’d be great, but it would also be great if it is given to someone who needs it more than I do. I think the process is worth way more than the monetary gain I can achieve from it.”
Bauer said the mural also has the added purpose of teaching students leadership and responsibility.
“It’s been a learning experience for them, not just with the murals, but also to be in a leadership position, where they’re instructing their friends: 'Hey, I need you to do line painting,' 'I need you to fill in this space with orange' — whatever the circumstances.”
Cole hopes that the project is only the beginning for Sarasota as a whole.
He said if people see the murals and appreciate the students’ work, they may consider having students paint murals in other areas, as well as donating to the arts program at Riverview High School, and perhaps at Sarasota High School. He also hopes to have the entirety of his fence painted.
Weccele said she hopes the project will inspire even more artists.
“I’m hoping that when people do see this artwork, and especially mine, they’re inspired to do art and not be afraid, just go beyond their limit, and spread ideas, and experiment, because in art, you can’t really do anything wrong. You do one thing and you can add on, (paint) over; nothing stays the same in art."
Ian Swaby is the Sarasota neighbors writer for the Observer. Ian is a Florida State University graduate of Editing, Writing, and Media and previously worked in the publishing industry in the Cayman Islands.