Muralists and community members are continuing their fight this week to save murals at the old Memorial Prep Middle School in Logan Heights, as the campus undergoes a massive renovation.
© (Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune) Artist Salvador Barajas (2nd from right) along with supporters speaks to the press at Memorial Prep Middle School about the removal of his murals from the school Wednesday. (Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)
The artists have obtained an attorney and help from art conservator Nathan Zakheim to spur the removal of two murals by artist Salvador “Sal” Barajas from the buildings.
Barajas, an influential artist who was one of the first muralists in Chicano Park, said he was not notified that his murals would be destroyed during the construction process.
Standing a few feet from the school Wednesday, Barajas and two other artists, Mario Torero and Salvador Torres, held printed photos of murals they painted for the campus. The artists said they are willing to seek a court injunction against the San Diego Unified School District if the school proceeds with destroying their artwork.
Barajas held up a photograph of his 18-year-old mural titled Graduating Students, which depicts two students wearing graduation caps and gowns and holding books and a diploma.
A community member held up a photo of Barajas’ other mural, Aztec School, which has the words “graduation, education and motivation” and portraits of influential civil rights leaders.
“The theme is education,” Barajas said, of his two murals. “There is nothing wrong with having something like this at the school…. Why they are tearing them down, I have no idea.”
The school district received a letter from the artists’ attorney, a spokeswoman said, but she would not comment further.
Last week, community members and artists unsuccessfully rallied to save a 32-year-old mural by Torres at the school. The building was torn down in the afternoon despite a sit-in protest at the demolition site by an Encanto resident.© (Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune) Despite protests, construction crews tear down a building with a art work by muralist Salvador Roberto Torres at Memorial Junior High School in Barrio Logan on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020 in San Diego, CA. (Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)
San Diego Unified officials said then that Torres’ mural could not be saved because it was painted on a building that contained asbestos.
The mural was documented in high-resolution color and black and white photos, district officials said.
The mural featured Memorial students, veterans of World War I, and Sharon “Christa” McAuliffe, a teacher turned astronaut who died in the 1986 crash of the space shuttle Challenger.
“The district initiated a good faith effort to reach out to the artists and community stakeholders during the design task force and California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process,” said Jamie Ries, a district spokeswoman, in an email.
The project was designed with extensive community input, Ries said, adding, “The muralist and other stakeholders were part of these discussions going back several years.”
The artists argue that it is the district’s responsibility to notify them directly if their work would be destroyed or moved because of construction or renovations. They said the Visual Artists Rights Act gives artists 90 days to remove their pieces.
A mural by Torero located in the school library is the only one that could be saved, the district said, because it was painted on removable panels.
Torero said he has not been allowed on campus to remove the mural.
Logan Heights resident Wicho Flores said he was involved in the community meetings the district held to discuss the school’s renovations.
Flores, who is a former student and employee of Memorial Prep Middle School, said residents made it clear they did not want to lose the history and culture of the school.
“We are not against the project; we are not against the progress of education here in Logan Heights, because that’s what they are making it seem like,” Flores said.
The artists and community members also questioned the district’s reasoning for not saving Torres’ mural last week. Flores said that if district officials were so concerned about asbestos, why did they allow a food distribution event nearby while demolition was happening?
“All hazardous material (including asbestos) assessment, notifications and abatement was performed by licensed contractors in accordance with all applicable environmental regulations,” Ries said.
The campus is undergoing construction to transform the elementary school and middle school campuses into a complex that serves K-12 students. The first phase of renovation includes the demolition and reconstruction of several existing buildings.