Alone in the Crowd

Kathleen Velo's bus-stop murals depict high-school alienation.

Photographer Kathleen Velo has taught high school for more than 20 years. So she knows what she's talking about when she says, most emphatically, "The high school years are NOT the best years of our lives."

Writing via e-mail from England, where she's teaching this year through a Fulbright Exchange Award, the longtime TUSD teacher explains that her most recent art project sets out to disprove the myth that high school is a carefree time. Bus riders, whether they're in high school or not, may have noticed her new photographic murals framed up in six new bright purple Sun Tran bus shelters around town.

Funded by a $5,000 grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, most of the murals, and their bus stops, are located near schools. The sepia-colored photos, "digitally collaged," picture alienated high school students trapped inside the dreary institutional architecture of our under-funded public schools.

Across the street from Doolen Middle School, at Grant and Country Club roads, a sad-looking girl has been photographed inside a typically awful school bathroom. You can just about smell the fetid air. A row of sinks juts out menacingly, and institutional tiles crisscross the room like a spider web meant to pin the girl in place. (School bathroom tiles are a nightmare memory; No wonder it took some of us a while to get to like tile as adults.) The girl leans against a big window, but its glass is opaque, dimming the light and obstructing any view of the outside world. (Not to name any names, but some of us still hate that claustrophobic clouded school glass, too.)

A "ghost" girl leans against another wall nearby. These outlined figures with hollow centers haunt all of Velo's school pictures. Disembodied but ever-present, they're a reminder of how alone adolescents often feel, no matter how dense the hallway crowd. And how they're overwhelmed by their own fleshly selves.

At the bottom edge of the picture, which is roughly 6 feet high and protected behind weatherproof plastic, Velo has collaged words that conjure up two opposing worlds of schools. The peculiar punitive words routinely issued by school authorities are lined up smartly like soldiers, written in rigid typeface: "repeat occurrence," "Poor study habits," "AREA OF DEFICIENCY." Twined around these stinging rebukes, scrawled like graffiti, are sentence fragments gleaned from notes written by Velo's own students. "No one else likes me for me," says one, and "Me so fucking mad," says another, with the f-word blurred, presumably to render it more palatable for the public.

One of the things I like best about this project is the way Velo uses school architecture as both fact and as metaphor: It looms, it confines, it traps. And she doesn't just go after the spiritless big-box architecture now demanded by Arizona's limited school-construction funding formula. At a bus shelter on Sixth Street and Park Avenue, at the UA but in between Mansfeld Middle School and Tucson High Magnet School, Velo pictures a gigantic, old-fashioned high school. Apparently located back East (the wintry tree branches are a tip-off), it's one of those monolithic entire-city-block constructions that leave the fragile souls among the students struggling to make themselves noticed.

Velo has photographed this pile in a sharp diagonal perspective, towering at one end and diminishing into the vanishing point at the other. And sure enough, it just about overwhelms the one student walking on its cracked sidewalk. A beanpole kind of kid who's already insubstantial, through Velo's digital wizardry, he disappears into an outline. He's just a few traces of yellow that hint at a boy. No doubt he's tormented by the angry official words below: "sexual misconduct," "KNOW THE CONSEQUENCES," "F=failure." And no wonder the scrawled words cry out, "need help," "feel like I'm going to cry."

At a Broadway Boulevard and Park bus stop--located, ironically, just south of TUSD's so-called Welcome Center--Velo goes into the nitty-gritty of the school experience. A spiky-haired boy, seen from the back, walks the school corridor. Again, it's a study in perspective, with classroom doorways lined up along the sharp diagonals of the walls and floor that shrink as they get closer to a distant window. But this time, Velo defies the school's harsh geometry. The lines on the linoleum's grid pattern soften into curves; those walls and doors are wavy and dreamlike.

But it's less a dream than a recurring nightmare. The kid could be walking a gangplank. The walls are cluttered with ghost kids standing there watching him; he's going to have to pass them to get to his next class, today and every day. Maybe they'll attack; maybe they won't. (In real life, a couple of middle school boys I saw at the bus stop on a recent afternoon were not merciful. Frustrated because their bus was late, they started pummeling Velo's pictured boy with idle malevolence.)

But never mind. There's something about the pluckiness of the kid in her photograph--the hair aimed in all directions, the confident stride--that makes you like him and hope for the best for him. And unlike that bathroom window in the other picture, the window at the end of his corridor has a view. Its panes are transparent, and the boy is walking toward the light.