Local effort pauses plans to paint over student murals at Dunnville Secondary

By Mike Renzella

The Haldimand Press

DUNNVILLE — Following news that Dunnville Secondary School (DSS) would be imminently painting the halls of the school white, covering decades worth of student-created artwork that currently adorns the hallways and classrooms, a petition created by former student Taylor Cavers has garnered over 850 signatures from people demanding the murals be allowed to stay.

Local artist and former DSS student Lacie Williamson spoke about the murals, which date back to the early 1990s: “The idea was to allow senior art students a chance to design, propose, and install a large-scale work of art. The teachers over the years left it up to the students to create something they felt passionate about, or something that reflected their experience and time at DSS.”

The murals act as something of a time portal, with different eras showcasing different themes. 

DUNNVILLE—Some examples of the many student made murals painted on the walls at DSS. —Photos courtesy of Lacie Williamson.

“When I attended DSS from 2002 to 2006, the existing mural themes were heavily influenced by music, psychedelic art, and many had a retro feel when viewed from the eyes of a millennial,” said Williamson, who was inspired by the increase in works related to social justice and environmental issues. Several works also reflect how difficult being a teen can be. 

“I realize to some, especially those disconnected from youth, that some of the murals may be received as violent, scary, taboo, or reflective of experience or thoughts that have the ability to make people uncomfortable, but being a teen is uncomfortable.” 

“Trying to navigate adult expectations while being treated like a child is uncomfortable. Learning independence, dabbling in love and heartbreak is uncomfortable,” she added. “These walls are a daily reminder that the storm you were living through wasn’t something you’re experiencing alone. Some murals were in memory of students who lost their lives to accidents or suicide, and others were a homage to teenage rebellion.”

Williamson herself painted two murals as a student, exploring her yearning for freedom of both artistic expression and from the societal expectations that come with femininity. Those murals would help launch Williamson into the life she enjoys today as an artist, with her work seen across southern Ontario, including two pieces in Dunnville and her largest piece at Second Chance Records in Caledonia.

She believes the murals in DSS “capture a feeling only teens can understand, experiences that us older folks forget we experienced, or choose to forget. It should be up to the students to determine what their school environment looks like – they have very little say in anything else.”

Williamson spoke with a school representative about the decision to paint over the murals, and was told it would “put forward a professional appearance and environment.” This gave her, and others she spoke with, fears that the school could be preparing to sell.

“The school no longer has a music department or program. Their funding is reduced at every corner, and other local high schools receive more resources,” Williamson asserted. “The gutting of our education system by our current government in Ontario could lead to the closure of Dunnville’s only secondary school, and the murals being painted over seems to be a sign they’re cleaning up appearances.”

Dave Smouter, Manager of Communications and Community Relations with the Grand Erie District School Board, offered a different perspective on the plans to paint: “There are a number of murals painted directly on the walls in Dunnville Secondary School, some more than 30 years old, and some damaged. The school team wanted an opportunity to showcase more recent student work on large canvasses in the halls. To make room for this, and to allow more opportunities for current students to see themselves celebrated in the school, some of the older and more damaged painted murals would have been covered up.”

While it is good news that the school has interest in continuing the murals, Williamson still wants to see the old murals preserved in some way: “These murals shouldn’t be painted over. They should be documented, catalogued, and in some cases little plaques or signage should go up to tell the stories of what has happened to these artists since they left DSS,” said Williamson, noting how some of the mural’s creators have gone on to work on major productions like ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Paw Patrol’. “Others have gone on to become famous for their music, fashion, and photography, and some are teaching art in foreign countries.”

Williamson, who opened LVW Creative Barracks in Dunnville in 2017, now teaches arts programming. She has been impressed by the community’s swift and passionate objection to the murals being painted over.

“I’m so grateful the community rallied together so quickly to address this before it was too late,” she said, adding she recently spoke with a fellow student about painting the murals back in the day. “They really were the best of our days. Our art classes were a time for us to explore what it meant to be us, to speak up, and to get weird without judgement. Spending my final days of high school in the halls reminiscing with other painters and getting positive feedback from teachers and students who connected to our works – that was gold. I can only wish that for every future artist who walks those halls.”

Smouter concluded on the plans to paint over any murals: “This project is now on pause, and the school will reach out to community members and the local artist community to collaborate on solutions to preserve the older art, and still allow for opportunities to showcase new art.”