Pam Smith, then-art teacher at East Valley High School, takes attendance at the beginning of class. There’s something troubling 17-year-old student Ariel Sopu. Smith can see it in her shoulders.
Delicately, Smith pulls Sopu aside and out of her shell. On the high school junior’s mind is the uncertainty of her life post-graduation. The milestone brings her to tears. She’s a passionate and talented budding artist, but isn’t sure if she can make it professionally, Smith said.
Fast-forward 15 years, and the pair are dancing around the school parking lot, embracing underneath a massive mural of Sopu’s design.
Sopu, a third-generation East Valley Knight, returned to her old stomping grounds and is painting a 2,000 square foot mural on a wall outside of East Valley High School, commissioned by the school’s booster club. Her grandpa, also an alumnus, stops by most mornings to keep her company while she paints.
Smith and Sopu, sage and apprentice, last saw each other in 2016, but stay connected via social media. When Sopu told Smith about the undertaking, she immediately came to see it for herself. Retired for 10 years, Smith misses discussing her students’ work.
“I mean, it was like we hadn’t even missed a beat in the ‘X’ amount of years since she’s been critiquing my artwork,” Sopu said. “She had great feedback, we were right back to having those conversations we had in my high school art room.”
Smith was gushing with pride seeing her former pupil’s undertaking, located on an east facing wall adjacent to the track.
“It just blows off of that wall, and the size of it is just monumental and you can’t walk away from it. It insists that you stop and look at it, which makes, to me, a very powerful piece of art,” Smith said. “It demands my attention so that’s why I was so excited about being in the presence of her and her mural because it was communicating power.”
Aside from instructions that the mural have the school’s green and black knight logo, the booster club gave Sopu free reign on the design.
So she went abstract, with swooping old English typography spelling out the school’s fight song in a gradient from obsidian black, stark against the whitewashed brick, to a softer gray in a spiral around the logo like water circling a drain. Off center on the towering canvas, the letters appear to fall off the edge of the building.
The lyrics aren’t legible at first glance, but that’s not the point, she said.
“A lot of the murals I see, it’s a scene or it’s very spelled out for you, and I like the fact that I can create something that pulls away from that just a little bit,” Sopu said. “It’s still beautiful, it still has high contrast, it’s still impactful, without being like, ‘Here’s a flower, here’s a butterfly.’ I like being able to let the viewer decide what they see.”
Sopu expects to finish by the end of July.
Sopu, following Smith’s lead, now teaches design at Eastern Washington University. With a handful of completed murals under her belt, she wants to paint more during her summers.
She said she wants the mural to communicate to students at East Valley that they should pursue their professional goals and tune out naysayers.
“A lot of growing up, you hear the term “starving artist” and things like that, and so I think a lot of times creative careers can kind of be put on a backburner or pushed out of the limelight because they don’t think they make as much money or success or whatever,” Sopu said. “(Smith) was never part of that group for me, for anyone. She drives and pushes and inspires and that’s what she did for me.”