Suzanne Whitaker is a kind of 21st-century Michelangelo.
Only instead of ceilings, the Ahwatukee artist paints walls.
But just as Michelangelo’s famed work on the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel inspires its beholders, Whitaker’s murals in schools invoke awe from the students and staff who pass them as they move from classroom to classroom.
In the waning days of the 2017-18 school year, Whitaker brought that awe to the children in kindergarten through fifth grade and staff at Kyrene del Cielo School in Chandler with a mural that is 9 feet high and 45 feet long.
And when they return to school next month, they’ll see another piece of Whitaker’s handiwork – hundreds of painted shoes and boots of all kinds running along the bottom of the walls along a 1,200-foot meandering corridor between the kindergarten classrooms and the school’s front office.
Both works of art have more than an aesthetic purpose – although, in truth, the school needs all the aesthetics it can get, according to Principal Tammy Thaete, who, like Whitaker, lives in Ahwatukee.
At 36 years old, Cielo is one of the oldest among Kyrene School District’s 25 schools. When it was built, it consisted of five separate buildings that eventually were linked about 20 years ago when the district connected them by topping the exceptionally wide paths among them with roofs.
A subsequent project left the walls of those corridors devoid of color or anything else.
The result, Thaete said, was that “the school had lots of bleak walls.”
Cielo’s PTO decided to do its part to change that.
For three years, parents pooled some of the money the PTO raised through fundraisers to finance a small beautification project.
They had heard about Whitaker, who, through her a one-person business, Passion for Murals, has painted large murals in several other Kyrene schools and businesses, including the three Coconut’s Fish Café restaurants.
Whitaker, who is also a book illustrator, has operated her mural business for more than 25 years since graduating from the University of Cincinnati School of Art.
Armed with a bachelor’s degree of fine arts in painting, she brought her business to Ahwatukee following a family transfer. Since then she’s been active throughout the Valley, working with designers on both residential and commercial projects.
On her website Passion4Murals.com, Whitaker blogs about how she got started doing murals as a young teen when challenged by blank walls in her bedroom.
For the blank Cielo wall chosen for her mural, Whitaker, PTO President JoLyn Isais and other parents worked with Thaete to come up with a theme for it.
“We are a neighborhood school and we wanted a mural to reflect what we’re about,” Thaete said. “So, we decided one of the things we’re about is reading.”
So, Whitaker set about painting a huge oak tree, with books hanging like fruit from its leafy branches. Each book has a title of a book that has been popular with various Cielo grades. And, of course, the mural has kids reading some of them.
Unlike Michelangelo, who needed about six months to finish that ceiling, Whitaker took less than two weeks to finish her big creation.
And throughout that time, kids would walk by.
And most of them were captivated in one way or another. Some recognized the titles of books they had read.
“One student asked me if that was him in the mural,” Thaete said, adding that her reply threaded a careful line between lying to and disappointing the child.
Some complimented her, telling Whitaker “You’re a really good artist” or “Great job!”
“I lost count on how many of those I got,” Whitaker said.
One student asked, “Have you ever thought of becoming a professional artist?”
“I got a standing ovation from some fourth graders on Day 3,” Whitaker laughed. “Never thought of my job as ‘performance art’ before.”
“One of the teachers told me there was a lot of kids that suddenly had to use the bathroom a lot,” she added. “She finally had to call them out, ‘Do you really need to go or do you want to watch the artist paint?’ Hilarious.”
Some kids naturally offered critiques, including the one who wondered why a dog had been added but there was no cat. It was just because Whitaker hadn’t finished.
A class spent some time discussing a name for the squirrel in the mural.
The entire experience moved Whitaker.
“Usually I’m not working with people around,” she explained. “This was the first time, and I loved it.”
Thaete said some students told her Whitaker inspired them to start drawing regularly while others were inspired to start reading titles they didn’t recognize.
Whitaker is now in the process of completing the second phase of the project – the shoes along both sides of the corridor between the kindergarten classes and the front office.
“When you’re 5, walking between the two areas can be confusing,” Thaete explained, noting that since the two lines of shoes face either direction, the children won’t get lost coming or going.
Whitaker draws stencils for the shoes, volunteers from the Cielo staff and PTO paint them and Whitaker follows up by adding little touches like laces or emblems.
She rejected using one set pattern, opting for a variety of styles and colors.
Thaete said even that will serve a purpose.
“If we have a child who needs to de-escalate, we can ask him or her to find the pink shoe or the blue sneaker,” she explained.
Whitaker also added one more personal touch to the mural that none of the kids probably will immediately understand.
“My mom was an elementary teacher and my dad was a school psychologist in the Cincinnati Public School district,” she explained. “My mom was prone to giving out gold stars when she recognized a good deed or thoughtfulness. So, I painted a small gold star on each child in the mural.
"Only one child came up to me and asked me about it. They are somewhat hidden and you have to be looking for them. I told him it was my secret communication with my mom, who has passed over. When I told him the story, he got a big smile on his face.”