Unofficially, artist Suzanne Whitaker of Ahwatukee is the official muralist of Kyrene School District.
Hundreds of children and scores of teachers and staff pass by admiring her work in eight of the district’s 19 elementary schools, including Mariposa, Cielo, Sierra, Altadena, Centennial, Ninos, Monte Vista and Lomas.
Her newest creations deck several halls of Monte Vista Elementary School in Ahwatukee, where she had first painted more than five years ago and returned to beautify two more walls.
The murals depict mountain lions, palo verde and eagles to reflect Monte Vista’s desert surroundings as well as the school’s values of perseverance in the pursuit of individual excellence.
As has been the case elsewhere in the district where PTOs held fundraisers to come up with some money to compensate her for her time and materials – or in Lomas’ case, the student council took the lead – Whitaker’s work began well before the final stroke of her brush.
It started with numerous meetings between her and Monte Vista PTO members, staff and even students as they hashed out ideas for a theme and the design.
Then, her work continued throughout about three weeks earlier this year as students walking into school or down one of the corridors would stop to admire her as she did her thing.
It was only fitting that mountain lions – the school’s mascot – anchor the murals, one in the front reception area and the other along a corridor where a wall is festooned with students’ artwork that reflects themes like kindness, strength and empathy.
The murals were completed about the same time that Monte Vista was awarded an A+ School of Excellence rating from the Arizona Education Foundation.
“It was important to have the mountain lions,” said Whitaker.
Indeed, a 6x6 foot lion’s face – based on a painting by artist Jurek Zamoyski – greets anyone at the threshold of that corridor bearing an inspiring inscription:
“This is the year I will be STRONGER, BRAVER, KINDER & UNSTOPPABLE. This is the year I will THRIVE!”
That inscription is echoed in a mural that wraps around the reception window in the main entrance to the school with the boldly stenciled inscription. “Welcome to Monte Vista. This is where we THRIVE!”
Whitaker said there initially was some concern by at least one teacher that the calm visage of the lion might be “scary” to younger student.
But those concerns turned out unwarranted after several students viewed her sketches of the lion and concluded that it didn’t seem that scary at all.
Indeed, as has happened at other schools where she has painted murals, Whitaker’s very act of creating was a lesson of sorts for the students.
Each day they walked by and could see the work in progress, admiring not only the care and artistry she brought to the assignment but also to see the desert scene and the lion’s face take shape.
“It was so cute,” she recalled. “They were watching the progress and I would hear random ‘thank yous.’ They were super excited.”
It’s not the first time she has used a mascot in a mural. Her mural at Lomas Elementary includes a huge soaring eagle, the school mascot, to inspire students.
Ramundo and Whitaker said the murals reflect a number of sessions where ideas were exchanged and rough sketches shown as the artist and her collaborators worked toward a final design.
“We talked about ideas that would resonate,” Ramundo recalled. “She really listens and asks questions. She listened to so many ideas and so much input. We wanted to capture the beauty of the desert but also have something that reflecting our values and that we support students learning and growing.”
Ramundo said a parent who was familiar with Whitaker’s work and her business, Passion4Murals, told her and other PTO members about it and soon the wheels were in motion to bring more life to the white walls of Monte Vista.
PTO members played an integral part in those talks, she said, because “we really feel strongly about our partnership with our parents.”
Ultimately, Ramundo added, Whitaker “took the major themes from the group” and ran with them.
Whitaker, who is also a book illustrator, has operated her mural business for more than 25 years and her clients have included restaurants and other businesses as well as homeowners.
Indeed, even as she was putting the finishing touches on the Monte Vista project, she began working in a private home painting a tree house in a forest on the walls of a boy’s bedroom.
“It’s going to be amazing,” she said.