Features & Columns

Downtown Doors Art Program

Urban art contest calls attention to inspiring crop of student artists
HATS OFF: 'The Maze Within' by Leigh High School student Kimi Walters was recognized by the Downtown Doors art project.

Last week, the Downtown Doors student art program added 22 new works to various service doors and utility boxes all over downtown San Jose, bringing the combined number of locations to 100. This year's winners were selected from 133 student submissions from 15 different high schools. Together, they are now plastered throughout the neighborhood.

Every year the program, established by the San Jose Downtown Association, adds new student works, all of which succeed in giving the kids an added boost of confidence. They now realize their work matters and that they should consider creative careers. And each year, the body of work, as a whole, seems to get better.

Kimi Walters of Leigh High School, for instance, produced "The Maze Within," an image of a woman with her head cut off, revealing a maze where her brain is supposed to be. Inside the circular maze, a tiny girl is trying to saw her way out. A few holes exist in some of the walls, indicating where she tried to break free, but the path led nowhere. So there she is, still trying to saw her way out of the maze in her head. In the background we see clouds. It's like the Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte drank absinthe with Carl Gustav Jung at Ace Hardware and came up with a '70s album cover. Brilliant.

"It's about overcoming obstacles," Walters told me at the reception, as we both ate cookies.

"The Maze Within" was originally part of the Museums of Los Gatos 2015 Annual Juried High School Exhibition and a new version is currently located on the Second Street side of the Camera 12 Theaters. Drawn with cheery, uplifiting, airy, pastel-like hues, the piece, for me, shattered the spacetime continuum on numerous levels, or perhaps in numerous interconnected pathways. On one hand, if anyone from my alma mater draws an image of a kid trying to saw her way out from the maze in her head, I'll probably identify with it, no matter what. For me, "The Maze Within" represents what it was like growing up in that neighborhood and going to that high school. The four years of art classes I took at Leigh were the only parts of high school that I even tolerated. Art was a major part of what saved me from going down more criminal paths.

"The Maze Within" brought back so many memories. Every mental labyrinth from that part of my life came spiraling back to the forefront in vivid detail and I couldn't get the image out of my head. Heck, I probably still have an equivalent little boy with a saw, somewhere up there in my brain, trying to escape. But over the years I've come to understand that he shouldn't be banished or done away with. He should be met with curiosity and compassion. I've learned to forgive him for the trouble he's caused. That's what I thought when I saw this image. Great art functions like a hall of mirrors, I guess.

Here's also what facetiously spoke to me: The only things missing from the piece were two longhorns—representing Leigh's mascot—protruding from the sides of the girl's head. That would make it even more surreal. She could probably buy them at Ace Hardware.

At the reception, many students expressed exuberance over their pieces being accepted. Many said the experience was a confidence booster, and that they'd never before seen their work displayed outside the classroom. The prizes included a cash per diem and even a copy of Adobe Creative Suite for each student. Adobe, apparently, is constantly trying to groom the next generation of employees.

But anyway, what's more, with all the destructive results of removing art and music from elementary schools emerging throughout the land, I can only say, that, after seeing the quality of the Downtown Doors pieces improve every year, the Belgian-Swiss Jungian surrealist in me percolates with massive amounts of hope. Many of these kids have serious talent, handsaw or not. Professional murals have been on the rise in San Jose over the last 10 years, so students like Walters have something to look forward to. Likewise, so do we.