When students at West Greenville School feel anxious and need to regain their composure, they often take a moment to watch the trains that rumble past on the tracks behind the school grounds. With the help of a local artist, and a grant from The Community Foundation of Greenville’s Dr. J.C. and Dorothy C. Frazier Fund, they have created their own visual representation of graffiti-adorned train cars inside the school. Students developed their artistic skills and inspired community pride while painting the murals, which serve as a daily reminder of what they are capable of achieving.
Principal Laura O’Laughlin says West Greenville School, formerly an elementary school attended by many adult community members, is as much a fixture in the West Greenville community as the train. It now serves students in grades 6–12 from across the county who have significant emotional and behavioral issues. With a small population of only 55–60 at-risk students, the school draws on the expertise of multiple agencies, including the South Carolina Departments of Mental Health, Continuum of Care, and Juvenile Justice.
“The work of these providers is coordinated so that we’re maximizing the benefits to help students process their emotions and work through their daily struggles. Our staff members are specially trained to meet the needs that can’t be met in a traditional school, so all students can become healthy, productive citizens,” O’Laughlin says. “Clubs and other enrichment activities take place during school day, rather than after school.”
O’Laughlin and her staff are always looking for ways to provide extra opportunities, and an art project like the murals offered multiple benefits. But due to its size and the population it serves, West Greenville doesn’t have a PTA to provide funds for beautification projects, even those with educational value. The school was fortunate, O’Laughlin says, that Cherington Shucker, executive director of the Greenville Center for Creative Arts (GCCA), understood their vision and could recommend both an artist and a program ready to help realize it.
Nick Burns, a Greenville native and 2019-2020 GCCA Brandon Fellow, was a perfect fit. Now 28, Burns began his artistic career as a dancer at age five, and has performed, choreographed and taught hip-hop dance for more than 13 years, including staging a flash mob in downtown Greenville. He started his visual arts career in high school as a street artist, drawing caricatures and custom graffiti; from there he began creating murals and now has more than 40 commissioned works.
When Burns first visited with West Greenville students to hear their ideas for the murals, they related to him so well he volunteered to teach a hip-hop class, which led to the school offering to pay him to provide weekly lessons. Like many of the students, he came from a background where success stories involving the arts weren’t common. Graffiti and hip-hop provided a creative outlet that continues to open new opportunities for him.
“I have a neighbor who’s in prison; I could have gone that way. I picked up a paint brush and a boom box versus picking up a gun,” Burns says.
Now he’s excited about the possibilities of combining dance and art to help students face challenges while learning and having fun. He continues to learn while developing the program he calls “physical graffiti.”
“When you create, it’s therapy in itself; you can create your own world and change the narrative. We can literally tell a story with every train car, with motivational quotes and imagery,” he says. “We can change the definition of what we think graffiti and hip-hop performance are, and see what new forms of expression we can create.”