Transforming a Community
One Brush Stroke at a Time
The story of Barth Quenzer (CO '12) and the metamorphosis of Brown International Academy
We’re told we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. What about an entire school? Six years ago, Denver Public Schools' Brown International Academy’s white walls—its proverbial cover—were plagued with tagging and vandalism on a weekly basis...it was a regular battle between facility managers and taggers marking their turf. Like raising a flag on a conquered land, the vandals' message was so loud and clear that it likely contributed to parents' reluctance to enroll their children at Brown. Literally and metaphorically, things were not looking good. Visual arts teacher Barth Quenzer—“Mr. Q” to his students—believed, however, that if vandals could mark their territory with spray paint, the community could reclaim it the same way and learn valuable lessons in the process. Treating the school’s walls as the community’s canvas, Barth embarked on a five-year transformation project as dramatic as any “Extreme Makeover” you’ve seen on TV.
“Creating public art brings people together in a very humane way.”
The result? Not only has vandalism been reduced by 90%, the artistic influence of the students changed the perception of the school and helped unite the community. “Once students became advocates for the mural projects, parents could see the impact and they too became excited and involved,” Barth tells us. "The change in the exterior walls with the public art was a visual metaphor for the internal shift and change that occurred within [the school] through the recruitment of strong leadership from our principals and the persistence of many great teachers, parents and students."
Excited by the phenomenon of learning, Barth revels in the exchange of ideas: “Creating public art brings people together in a very humane way,” he tells us, “the goal is to learn from each other, to inspire each other, and to create amazing work.” A colleague adds that “Barth doesn’t just teach art, he teaches students to become artists. He encourages his students to exercise critical thinking and find creative solutions to conceptual issues.”
“The goal is to learn from each other, to inspire each other, and to create amazing work.”
In partnership with the Denver Urban Arts Fund (UAF), Barth was one of just a few teachers to pilot a long-term project to “prevent graffiti vandalism by creating positive, well-tended and active community gathering spaces, and by generating opportunities for young people to participate in diversionary art and leadership programs.” Since piloting his first UAF project, Barth has helped expand the program across Denver. “We have worked with hundreds of students, painted a dozen murals, reclaimed over 20,000 square feet of vandalized public space, and trained approximately 20 teachers on how to develop public art programs at their respective schools.”
Among the challenges that Barth faced was how best to incorporate students into the very complex world of public art, which is typically created for a wide audience. Students had to learn how to deal with a variety of different opinions, expectations and perspectives about what constitutes public art. “It took me several years to hone how best to address the complexity of public art installations with the students,” he says. To help, Barth brought in several artists-in-residence to collaborate on the murals.
In 2012, this tale of transformation came full circle when Barth met Ratha Sok, whose work as a high school muralist years earlier had inspired Barth’s community mural mission. With one final outside white wall remaining at Brown, it seemed fated that Ratha would lend his talents to this project. This extensive mural now wraps around the playground wall and illustrates community through the celebration of diversity.
Whether desirable or not, it is human nature to judge things based on appearance. Take for example, the broken windows theory of criminology popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point. The theory posits that a few broken windows unfixed signal to vandals that a property is uncared for. The vandalism then escalates and even spreads to other nearby buildings like a plague infecting the once-healthy organism. Art may not be a panacea, but the transformative properties of community projects like those led by Barth are clear and lasting. Students who have graduated from Brown even return to volunteer at the after-school art club. Having filled all of the outside walls with murals, his students have begun an enormous mosaic project, employing 580 6’x6’ painted canvas tiles on the interior walls of the school café.
“To transform a school, you have to be committed for the long haul. Brown has become an ideal learning environment that is rich and full of color.” Today, Brown International Academy—an authorized International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme—is viewed as a highly desirable school and boasts a long waiting list. Barth may be the visionary force behind the artistic transformation but he’ll be the first to say that this has been a collaborative effort, and may not have been successful any other way: “it’s a testament that teachers and students and the community can change not only the physical structure of a school, but change the collective envisioning.”
Barth Quenzer in profile:
- Instructor at the University of Denver, Teacher Education Program teaching Elementary Art Methods to apprentice teachers.
- Teacher Leader Academy for Denver Public Schools participant.
- Elected to serve on a Stakeholder Leadership Group for Denver’s Cultural Plan.
- Tapped by the Colorado Department of Education to collaborate on writing the statewide art standards.
- Ed Seeds grant 2013 recipient from the Donnell-Kay Foundation to bring design thinking to the development of an innovative solution to the vexing problem of how to accurately assess student comprehension in the arts.
- Professional fine artist working and showing at the Guerilla Garden, and most recently exhibited at the Leon Gallery.
- Teacher of classroom management for second-year teacher candidates for art K-12 as an Adjunct Instructor at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, and mentors new teachers.
- Teaching Artist for Think 360 Arts, a professional development institute.
- Advisor to the Urban Arts Fund; recently led their first-ever workshop for the current 21 grantees. Barth’s goal was “to help them connect and understand the context and scope of their public art projects so that they can better capture the experiences and narratives as they happen.”
“I decided to become a teacher because I respected above all, the great teachers in my schooling. I continue to be a teacher because I see the impact that an arts education has on my own students. As an artist and a teacher, I am helping everyone see just a little bit further.”
See more of Barth's work in schools and as a fine artist, watch videos of projects and learn more on his website.
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