A Powerful Mural Marks the Desegregation of South Carolina Schools

Australian artist and photographer Guido van Helten’s photorealistic large-scale murals have graced structures from India to Tennessee, exploring topics such as water conservation, the changing of communities, and regional traditions such as farming, wine making, and weaving. For a new commission in Greenville, South Carolina, the artist created an impactful piece to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of the city’s schools. “The concept behind this design is a culmination of 10 days of location research and community consultation—focusing on the broad theme of education in Greenville and the history, personalities, and legacies of the Integration Era—in order to find imagery symbolic of unity and diversity in modern-day Greenville,” says van Helten.

Over the course of his research trip, van Helten spoke with a diverse group of community leaders and refined the focus of the mural. “This approach opened up the concept to give voice to traditionally Black communities on the west side of Greenville,” he says. “Listening to the community consensus among prospective local audiences of young professionals, the arts and culture scene, and leaders in minority neighborhoods, stories emerged including a narrative of overarching gentrification and affordable housing sustainability. For this reason, the focus of the artwork shifted to a broader theme of the legacies of the Integration Era in education, which has led to the modern-day diversity of the city.”

Former teacher Pearlie Harris, one of van Helten’s mural subjects.
Former teacher Pearlie Harris, one of van Helten’s mural subjects.
Photo: Guido van Helten

One such community leader he interviewed was Pearlie Harris, a former educator who taught for 37 years before retiring in 1992. Harris began teaching in Greenville in 1962 and for a time was the only Black teacher at Crestone, a local school, until desegregation in 1970. “Pearlie Harris is an exemplary citizen of Greenville County, as is [former local teacher and principal] Maxine Moragne, and the many other subjects I met as part of my consultation process,” says the artist. “For the design to go forward, I wanted her to belong to the focal point of the design, which would have a significance to the message behind the artwork.” The mural depicts Harris surrounded by current students at AJ Whittenberg Elementary School, symbolizing the impact a teacher can have on generations.

Van Helten’s canvas was the eight-story former BB&T building, now fittingly called Canvas Tower. The building is owned by Charleston, South Carolina, developers the Beach Company, who commissioned the mural. The artwork spans 18,900 square feet of the building’s façade. “My process is always focused on complementing the existing architecture as much as possible,” says van Helten. “The aim is to add another approach to the creative expression which already exists in the architecture. I work with the angular forms of buildings in an effort to align emotive imagery to the forms, humanizing the existing character of buildings. It is important that my work finds a way to belong to the structure and avoids a style or approach to coloring that may clash with the building and its surrounding environment.”

Van Helten at work on his 18,900-square-foot mural.
Van Helten at work on his 18,900-square-foot mural.
Photo: Courtesy of the Beach Company

While murals frequently use bold colors, the impact of van Helten’s work comes from its scale and human subjects. “Coloring is chosen for my projects through an analysis of texture, in this case the colors of the brick are mixed and graded in a series of tones from there,” he says. “I aim to use the existing colors of buildings as a base layer, conserving texture in the process of painting. This could best be described as an approach most similar to watercolor application on an industrial scale.” Van Helten applies translucent applications of mineral-based paints and stains—which he says adapt to the surface to create a permeable layer—instead of a topcoat. “This means the mural work is durable to weather and it has a pleasing effect,” he says.

The artist spent 704 hours over five weeks painting the mural, which was revealed in late August. While the mural was commissioned in 2019, its debut comes at a time when the country is reexamining its history of racial injustice. Large-scale public art has long been a tool of protesters and activists, and murals have appeared across the country during the recent protests, including several Black Lives Matter street murals that were painted in front of the White House in Washington, D.C.; on Fifth Avenue in New York; and in other cities.

Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest