A high school artist was chosen to paint a mural. Then came the outrage

A mural painted by a high school student came under fire when parents alleged it was promoting LGBTQ imagery and witchcraft.

Earlier this year, a Grant, Michigan, high school sophomore won a contest “to brighten up” the middle school health center, according to a statement from Grant Public Schools (GPS). GPS says the student received approval to paint images of “smiling children” and as well as the message “Stay Healthy.”

In the painting, there are three children. A boy is seen in a light blue, pink and white T-shirt, the colors of the transgender Pride flag. A girl wears pink, royal blue and purple, the colors of the bisexual flag. And a second girl is in rainbow Pride colors.

GPS Superintendent Brett Zuver was a contest judge. He did not respond to an email asking if he understood the meaning of the colors when the student’s design was chosen as the winner. GPS said the final mural included “some features” that were not part of the agreement, including a demon face inspired by a popular video game called Genshin Impact, and a “Hamsa hand,” also known as the Hand of Fatima or Hand of Mary. The palm-shaped design has been a symbol for good luck or protection for centuries in many cultures, including Latin American.

At a school board meeting on Oct. 10, parents accused the student artist of promoting witchcraft by including the Hamsa hand as well as the video game character that bears the likeness of a demon. Parents also objected to the use of LGBTQ colors.

“I put my art up there to make people feel welcome,” the student artist said, her voice breaking, in footage captured at the meeting by WZZM-TV, a local news station based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

One man at the meeting called the mural “hate material.”

Another adult at the meeting said, “I feel like (she) did a really good job finding excuses to defend the things you put on. None of us are that stupid.”

Tracey Hargreaves, a friend of the student artist's family, shared a photo of the original design for the mural.
Tracey Hargreaves, a friend of the student artist’s family, shared a photo of the original design for the mural. Courtesy Chandler Morris

Tracey Hargreaves, who has two children in the Grant Public School system, came to the defense of the student artist. 

“I am a conservative, right-wing, gun-loving American,” Hargreaves declared at the meeting. “And I’ve never seen more bigoted people in my life.”

In an interview with TODAY.com, Hargreaves said, “The meeting turned into a hate fest. Usually there are 10 people at these meetings, 50 showed up. It wasn’t even about the mural … People were talking about how we need to pray the gay away.”

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“I had to stand up and say something,” Hargreaves added. “It was out of control. You can’t catch gay, honey. It’s not contagious.”

The student artist left the meeting in tears, according to Hargreaves.

“She tried to explain herself, but no one would listen. They were convinced that the Hand of Fatima … was satanic,” Hargreaves said.

Lori Donati, who works at the middle school health center where the mural is displayed, told NBC affiliate WOOD-TV, which is based in Grand Rapids, earlier this month that she was “thrilled” with the result.

“Everyone’s accepted at our clinic,” Donati said. “What she (the artist) was trying to say (is that) everyone’s accepted no matter what your background is or who you are. You are loved and accepted and that’s exactly our philosophy with our office, too.”

On Oct. 13, GPS announced that “at the student artist’s request, the mural will be returned to its original form as originally submitted and approved by the Administration.” That means the images of the children and animals will remain, but symbols including the Hand of Fatima and the video game character will be removed.

The student artist’s father declined an interview when contacted by TODAY.com. Zuver, the school superintendent, said in an email that the student artist and the school board “came to a very positive resolution.”

“(She) asked to make some adjustments by removing some of the items that were not on the original submission that was approved,” Zuver said. “There are some symbols that were used to fill in space. She said the wall was bigger than she thought and didn’t want to leave too many blank spaces.”

“I am a very proud of her,” Zuver added. “She is a great young lady.”