3 schools create meaningful art through Murals with a Mission

May 16th, 2024

This spring, the Cincinnati Reds and PNC continued their partnership away from the field with three additions to their program, Murals With A Mission, powered by PNC.

Armed with the talents of local artist Brent Billingsley, the organizations launched the initiative in 2022 with the intention of creating lasting works of art at high school campuses across Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky that elevate positive social messages relevant to each school’s student body.

The first four participating schools included Princeton, Mason, Loveland and Dixie Heights. In 2024, they have been joined by Colerain, Madeira and Sycamore.

“Both the Reds and PNC believe in giving back to the community and creating a culture where everyone is welcome, included and valued,” PNC president of Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky Warren Weber said. “When we talk about our best days in banking, sometimes it has nothing to do with banking and everything to do with community. To have partners like the Reds and Brent just brings that out and we connect with the community in a way that sometimes we can’t duplicate in banking.”

At each stop, Billingsley works directly with a group of students to develop a concept, design and finished product that best represents the school. Aside from brainstorming and painting, these sessions are filled with laughter, singing, dancing and sometimes deep discussions. And while the final work of art at each school is different, the positivity, unity and hope that emanate from these strategy and painting sessions are constants, and they are reflected in the murals.

“PNC Bank and the Reds get Brent and his company ARTE to work with the students and organically discover what they want amplified in their hallway that brings about hope and positivity,” Reds chief communications and community officer Karen Forgus said. “The entire intent of this is for the Reds and PNC to come alongside communities and help them do well in their lives.”

At Colerain High School, Billingsley worked with the school’s Hope Squad and Art Club. The group had the idea to have students painted on the different panels of the mural wearing shirts that spelled out “COLERAIN” while also using sign language to spell the school’s name.

“This was one of the kid’s ideas,” Billingsley said. “They wanted to sign Colerain and then spell it out. I’m really into nonverbals so I thought that was just brilliant. It tells a narrative without saying a word. We hadn’t done this before, so it was a magnificent idea.”

Aside from the unique concept, another aspect that set this mural apart was that after the direction was determined and the drawing was sketched out, all the painting was completed in just three days. It was the fastest turnaround of any mural so far in terms of the paint job.

“It was a fun and very enthusiastic process,” said sophomore Tyler Wooten, who showed up after hours once baseball practice was over to help with the painting. “I loved it so much that I came back each and every day to paint it. It was so important to me just to be more of a part of Colerain.”

On April 19, they presented the completed mural to the student body during a school-wide assembly.

“It has been a great opportunity to get our students to vocalize and share what they believe Colerain looks like as a full community,” Colerain principal Erin Davis said. “You can see through this mission the extreme amount of diversity that we offer here at Colerain and what that looks like captured in one image. There are so many ideas, values and beliefs that are captured in one picture that we get to display at our school.”

Two weeks later, it was Madeira’s turn. While the initiative historically involves the creation of just one mural, Maderia’s group went outside the box. Their vision was to create something all-encompassing to signify the unity, strength and communal bond among all Madeira City Schools: Madeira Elementary, Madeira Middle School and Madeira High School. Students from each of those schools were also used as the subjects of the three murals.

“Madeira is more than just this high school,” said Madeira High School principal Dave Kennedy at the unveiling ceremony. “We get to do a lot of cool things at Madeira because of who you are as students and as staff. But that doesn’t come from one four-year school; it builds throughout the entire district. I said this is bigger than the high school, so one mural was not good enough. We needed murals in each of our buildings to represent the journeys that you all do coming up through Madeira City Schools.”

There was also a little bigger meaning, a little extra heart and a few more tears put into this particular project. Just over a year ago, the Madeira community suffered the tragic loss of Chris Flanagan, the beloved principal at Madeira Elementary. The Hope Squad used Murals with a Mission as an opportunity to show the community’s continued support for the Flanagan family and leave a lasting legacy for all students that make their way through Madeira City Schools.

“We celebrate our highs and come together in our lows,” Kennedy said. “This time last year, we were pretty low. So the timing of this project was amazing that it comes a year later and we’re able to pull together to foster hope, strength and community.”

“PNC and the Reds do not send us to schools to do murals. They send us to schools to build relationships, create smiles and for people to heal in places they didn’t even know they were hurting,” Billingsley added. “It just so happens we can color, too.”

The third and final mural that was dedicated this spring came on May 10 at Sycamore. The high school hosted a signing ceremony for 23 of its talented seniors who were making their commitment to pursuing fine arts at the collegiate level.

With the stage already set for a celebration of the arts featuring some of the school’s standout artists, Sycamore’s Murals With A Mission unveiling served as the perfect lead-in. Students at every level of art -- beginning, intermediate, advanced and AP Art students -- participated in creating the piece. To illustrate the wide range of diversity at the school, the massive mural spells out “SYCAMORE” with students portrayed in the background and within each letter.

The only outlier is the letter “Y,” which remains solid gold.

“Art is about connection,” said Peter Griga, Sycamore art teacher and advisor for the school’s art club. “But you don't see all the connections that art makes when you look at a piece of art, regardless of the media. It's an idea, a concept that is expressed through the creation of art that helps create connection.”

The solid colored “Y” was an intentional choice representing two unique concepts. The first is the growth mindset stemming from the word “yet.” If individuals express that they cannot do something, and continue to repeat this mindset, then it becomes believable. But by simply adding the word “yet,” it changes the entire model, and suddenly the mindset shifts away from negativity and toward possibility.

Second, at some point in our lives, we have all asked ourselves “why?” regarding our purpose, beliefs, values, etc. From the teachers’ perspectives at Sycamore, the “why” is the students, and from the students’ perspective, the “why” is meant to guide them deeper into their learning, potential and creativity.

So when you combine the two concepts, each person that sees the mural becomes the “Y” in “SYCAMORE.”

“The mural’s messages are so simple, yet crystal clear,” Weber said. “Every single one of you belongs here and has the opportunity to grow into the very best versions of yourselves. This mural will be the legacy that continues to deliver that message for all who walk through those doors for generations to come.”

All three murals will be highlighted and representatives from each school will be honored during pregame ceremonies at Great American Ball Park. Sycamore and Colerain will be recognized on May 25 before the Reds vs. Dodgers game, while Madeira will be recognized in June during the Red Sox series.