Friday, June 1, 2012

Making A Difference One Mural At A Time

Mural painting project at P:EAR

Clutching his traditional medicine bag, Rodolfo Serna embraces the day, like many days, with fervent prayers and a grateful heart.

It all started with a loss.  A fine arts student from Portland State, lost the interest in working as a solitary artist for reasons that kept bringing all the attention back on him.  Not feeling satisfied with this introspective mind-frame, Serna changed gears.  He now collaborates as a muralist, not with fellow practicing artists, but with youth in the Portland metro area.  Serna sees a gift of creativity in the minds of children.  Just as Pablo Picasso quoted, “All children are artists.  The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

Sunny Side Elementary kick-Off session
Serna works with Right Brain Initiative (RBI), a non-profit organization placing willing artists in Portland's public schools to administrate creative projects.  Back in 1992, measure 5 did a pretty good job of cutting funds for the arts programs in the school system.  Although it is a huge undertaking to bring art education back into schools, Right Brain's innovative efforts are making a difference.

Rodolfo Serna at Sunny Side Elementary.

Serna prays for guidance and a humble heart.  It is kick-off day and the children await his arrival.  This day is important to Serna as it marks the beginning of a new collaboration; the birth of ideas.  The auditorium at Sunnyside Elementary bustles with gabbing students and anticipation.  Their ears perk at the sound echoing in from the hallway. “”  The steady pounding of a Native American drum beats in perfect time, joined by a song.  A song that has been sung for centuries, passed down from the native tradition.  Serna's voice pours into the room, all eyes on him, as he embraces these children with an ancient melody.

Briana Linden, implementation coordinator at RBI, described how the decision to become a teaching artist really takes a special person. “Rodolfo has it,” she explained, “It is natural for him, he is able to listen to the students and respect them.”

Linden broke down the application process.  She said that they usually get around 40 letters of interest, and at least half will go on to fill out a formal application.  In the end, less than five artists will be accepted. This is partly due to a competitive nature of the program; however, a portion of artists interested back out after realizing the adaptability required to teach students of all ages across the district.  It takes artists like Rodolfo Serna, who are willing to step away from the singular artist visage and work with others symbiotically.

“This job is not easy.” Serna discloses, “Some days I don't even get paid.  Today, I woke up with a cramped neck and I am fighting a cold.” Still full of enthusiasm and positive energy, an onlooker would have never noticed that Serna was feeling under the weather.  “These kids do that for me.” Serna credits, “They give me the energy I need.”

Serna's Black hair is usually pulled back into a traditional braid and paint stains embellish much of his wardrobe.  He often wears glasses and a few tattoos decorate his arm.  The students feel at ease with Serna.  He has a way of connecting with them and finding equal ground.

Serna's student "lead murals" are displayed on the interior and exterior walls of school buildings.  He meets with the kids weekly for art sessions, where they paint together.  He incorporates a pie chart analysis of students ideas for a mural in a percentage format.  If 25 students wanted a lion and five students envisioned a star in the picture, then Serna would have a center point lion and a glimmering star off in the corner.  This method helps to compile every contribution from every child into one concept.  Linden from Right Brain reflected that “mural art has been powerful for the schools because it is about a community process.  Many schools feel disconnected as a community.  It is impacting for students to be a part of something that will be displayed on their walls.”

Whitman Elementary mural project
During an art session with Serna, a young 8th grade student from King Middle School  expressed, “I've never done anything like this before and nobody has ever taken the time before. People have come into our school to paint murals and they just do it themselves. I think, 
it's our walls so it should be our art...”
King Middle School project

A child was sick with the flu and she dragged herself into school when she should have been at home in bed.  The principal of this Portland school asked her, “Why are you here, you should be at home?”  She told him, “I can't stay home...Today is Right Brain day!”

Carissa Martus, a music teacher from Quatama Elementary shared from her experience.  She explained when children expressed their future career dreams, they would rarely mention artist.  “With artists like Rodolfo coming to our schools to work with the children, the kids are becoming inspired by these men and women.  Now, we often hear students envisioning themselves as an many students being an artist was never an option before.”

Although native to Chicago, Serna has never let go of his roots extending deep into the soil of Mexico.  When he collaborates as an artist he integrates his own life story into his work, as well as larger issues of Native American identity; while also wrapping each student's identity into a mural.  By sharing elements of his Aztec heritage this deepens the program with a rich cultural education. 

Daily, Serna seeks humility; in the native tradition he is considered a helper.  His desire is to live life as “a vessel doing good” for others.  The children he works with are “pure little spirits”.  Inspired by these young souls, Serna steps away from the job each day and strives to live more like the children, pure in spirit and mind.
A group at P:ear collaborating creatively together

Serna also works with P:ear a non-profit involved with mentoring marginal youth.  In addition he is on the board for a few grassroots organizations, including Medicine Bear and Mexica Tiahui.  Serna hopes to bring these two indigenous groups together to run as one non-profit.

After asking Serna why he chose this work he said, “If there was a tsunami that wiped out civilization as we know it, then maybe I would be a hunter-gatherer.  But living life right now in today's world, I am following my path and doing what I was meant to do.” Just as the ancient Aztecs created hieroglyphics on stone walls, Serna helps to bring beauty to the concrete walls in the jungle of Portland, Oregon.

The steady beat of the drum rolls onward, this is the beat that calls Rodolfo each day... the beat that matches the pounding of his heart.  Serna's work as a muralist is personal in every degree. He strives to plant seeds for the joy of expression and the love of art in every child he meets. Thank you to those that care and to those that make a difference, we need more Rodolfo Serna's in this world.

For more information and images of Rodolfo's past mural collaborations please visit his website:

You can also find more information at Right Brain Initiative and P:ear.

- Written by ArtVigilante: Jenny Rose

Video created by Nicholas Rudy
This is a piece I did profiling a local Native American artist who mentors and works with homeless and at-risk youth in the Portland metro area. It was a pleasure to meet him and attempt to capture the essence of his work. " - Nicholas Rudy

Rodolfo Serna
Group mural from Quatama Elementary
Student painting on group mural at King Middle School.

King Middle School mural project.

Luis, a volunteer at P:ear, is currently being mentored by Serna.
He also takes part in some of the projects.

Quatama Elementary group mural


  1. This is really inspiring, and the resulting murals are breathtaking! Thanks, Jenny, for your advocacy.

  2. Thank you L.B.P. Martin for your comments. Greatly appreciated... nothing brings me more joy than to hear that you felt inspired. That is essentially my hope, that we can grow as individuals being inspired by one another through the beauty, expression and activism of art. Thank you again. -Jenny Rose

  3. Replies
    1. OH LEVI! I was wondering if I knew an L.B.P, I remember your extravagant middle initials... Hey, thanks so much for taking the time to read this. I love sharing my discoveries throughout the community. This project in particular was amazing to be a part of. So many inspiring people in this world. Peace brother.