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Hyattsville schools alumna looks to inspire students with mural

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Posted on: September 14, 2023

BY TORRENCE BANKS

Muralist MISS CHELOVE, whose birth name is Cita Sadeli, was in her Brentwood art studio one morning when she saw an email from Jason Washington, director of public-private partnerships for the county school system.

She had recently applied to paint a new mural at her alma mater, Hyattsville Middle School, as part of the first phase of the county’s Blueprint Schools Program — an investment by Prince George’s County Public Schools into the construction of new schools and the renovation of old ones, using an innovative public-private partnership model.

Artist MISS CHELOVE sits in front of her 2016 mural “Amazon Love Letter” in Shirlington, Va.
Courtesy of MISS CHELOVE

CHELOVE said she nervously opened the email — and then became ecstatic upon learning she’d been selected.

“This was definitely a love project where no matter what the parameters were, I just thought it was neat and wanted to come back and be a part of this new chapter for the school,” CHELOVE said in an interview.

CHELOVE and her three siblings were raised by their mother, Sri Sadeli Kuhns, who grew up on Java in Indonesia. Kuhns moved to the U.S., in 1965, to get a graduate degree in library science at Indiana University as a Fulbright scholar.

CHELOVE was born in Bloomington, Ind., and moved with her family to Hyattsville when she was 4 years old. Kuhns encouraged CHELOVE and her siblings to explore creative activities from a young age. Visual arts like painting, textile, sculpting and carving are traditions in Indonesian culture.

“She [Kuhns] was strict but definitely wanted us to kind of experience life and to see for ourselves, what was resonating and what wasn’t,” CHELOVE said. “One of her favorite mottos — and in fact, it’s on her gravestone — is ‘If you don’t try, you’ll never know.’”

CHELOVE attended both Hyattsville Elementary and Northwestern High School before these schools had creative arts programs. She received attention for her drawing ability while at Hyattsville Elementary and often drew animals, cars and her favorite foods. CHELOVE learned to draw by copying cartoon characters like the Pink Panther and Garfield.

While she was at Northwestern, one of CHELOVE’s art teachers, Mr. Moore, entered her work into a contest and always pushed her to become better.

“Sometimes we’ll have those triggers from youth where a teacher has a criticism, and it just sticks with you for the rest of your life,” CHELOVE said. “And that the opposite can be true, too. If a teacher is very encouraging, [you] just kind of never forget it.”

CHELOVE said that she became fascinated with graffiti art during her freshman year at Northwestern. She found an anti-drug pamphlet illustrated by Zephyr, a famous New York City graffiti artist. In awe of his work, CHELOVE started airbrushing, creating designs by spraying on the back of students’ jean jackets.

“I had never seen graffiti letters (this was before the internet),” CHELOVE said. “And I was just like, ‘What is that?’ and that completely captivated me. I would then try to repeat and learn those letters.”

CHELOVE graduated from Northwestern in 1990 and took a year off before enrolling at the District’s Corcoran School of Art (now George Washington University’s Corcoran School of the Arts and Design). She said she dropped out after her first year to be a professional illustrator, painter and muralist.

Since then, CHELOVE has created about 50 murals across the DMV — with many of them highlighting powerful Black women, Indigenous cultures, fashion and the challenges impacting society. She has also created murals in Miami and New York City.

Some of the topics that she has addressed include Indigenous rights, sexual discrimination and human rights. In her 2020 mural “DC Stands United Against Hate,” CHELOVE highlights several African Americans who lost their lives unjustly.

CHELOVE’s seven-story mural “Guardians of the Four Directions,” which she describes as her most impactful work, adorns the Hotel Zena in Thomas Circle and depicts two female warriors holding spears. People protesting the murder of George Floyd in summer 2020 marched past it.

MISS CHELOVE’S “Guardians of the Four Directions” mural spans seven stories of the Hotel Zena in Thomas Circle.
Courtesy of the Hotel Zena

“I had received comments that seeing those women of color holding spears is really regal and noble, and it gave them strength,” CHELOVE said. “It’s such a wonderful stage for an artist to create a work.”

Director Washington said that CHELOVE, along with the other three artists selected to paint murals at Sonia Sotomayor, Kenmoor, Drew-Freeman and Walker Mill middle schools, was selected based on her ability to capture the essence of the community.

When creating a mural, CHELOVE said she first focuses on the site of the mural, including its history and the surrounding area. She then conducts research and establishes the narrative of the mural.

In creating the mural’s visuals, CHELOVE takes into account the mural’s dimensions and the viewer’s perspective: Will viewers be standing close to the mural? If the mural is located outside, how big should the text be so that people traveling in vehicles can see it?

“There’s a lot that goes into what I am painting,” CHELOVE said. “Because when I leave, it’s really for the people that are there. I get to go on and do other things. I don’t have to see this every day. So I want this to have meaning right for all the people there.”

CHELOVE also said she typically creates a survey for all project stakeholders. Washington said that CHELOVE’s approach to the Hyattsville Middle mural emphasized community engagement.

CHELOVE said that she and Hyattsville Middle Principal Chanita Stamper surveyed the community and staff for ideas on the message of the mural. They decided it should depict how the creative arts support academics, uniting the school’s creative and performing arts magnet program with its comprehensive curriculum.

MISS CHELOVE’S drawing of Hyattsville Middle School’s mural “Strong Roots, Big Wings, Bright Futures”
Courtesy of MISS CHELOVE

In CHELOVE’s illustration of the Hyattsville Middle mural, music notes float from dancers through a violin and transform into math problems that float over a teen girl.

“You’ve got the math of music and beats and how that can feed into algebra problems and engineering,” CHELOVE said.

In the next section, another girl studies, while symbols of creative writing, science, theater and the arts surround her. Her pen creates an open sky, symbolizing the unlimited potential of youths, according to CHELOVE. The final section of the mural shows a teen boy releasing a hawk — the mascot for Hyattsville Middle.

“It depicts several scenes which touch on the vast potential of middle schoolers, the joy and curiosity that fuels their brilliant minds, and the connection between creativity and academic excellence,” CHELOVE said.

She noted that although the mural won’t actually be completed by the Sept. 18 ribbon-cutting, she’ll be available to answer questions and hopes to provide a printout of the mural.

In addition to creating the mural for Hyattsville Middle, CHELOVE will also design one for Colin Powell Academy in Fort Washington. She said she expects to complete the Hyattsville Middle mural by October and to install the Colin Powell mural by early January.

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