Isaiah Johnson, 17, works on his painting at Castlemont High School in Oakland, Calif. on June 27, 2023. Johnson is a student at Fremont High School. Credit: Florence Middleton

For the past four weeks, Skyline High School student Felicia Tom has been carefully crafting a painting of a dragon weaving through prominent landmarks in the Bay Area, like the Tribune Tower, Salesforce Tower, and Fox Theater. 

A lifelong artist and rising high school senior, this is the first time Tom is creating a piece for the public, and she’s using the opportunity to put her Asian background front and center.

“It’s great if I can uplift my own culture while spreading positive messages and using my own talents to put my culture into a space that will benefit others,” she said. “Culture is the foundation of the San Francisco Bay Area.”

Felicia Tom, 17, lays the foundations of her painting at Castlemont High School in Oakland, Calif. on June 27, 2023. Tom plans to create a dragon art piece. Credit: Florence Middleton

The opportunity arose from an internship with the Civic Design Studio, an organization that works with OUSD schools, community organizations, and professional artists to expose students to the creative arts. 

Tucked in the back of Castlemont, adjacent to a preschool and in a former ROTC shooting range, the FabLab—or fabrication laboratory—normally serves as a workspace for students in the school’s sustainable urban design academy, a program that focuses on architecture, urban planning, and the environment. But this summer, it’s been the headquarters for the Civic Design Studio. Thirty high schoolers have been hard at work there, painting pieces that will go up in Foon Lok East, a MidPen affordable housing complex at Brooklyn Basin.

The students’ 4-by-4 foot canvases lean against a wall outside the FabLab as the young artists incorporate abstract and real-world elements into their paintings. One piece shows Mother Nature aside the Tribune Tower, while another student completes a forest and waterfall scene. 

It’s the third year of the partnership between Civic Design Studio and MidPen housing, and the students’ pieces will eventually go up in a brand new affordable housing development at Brooklyn Basin. Each of the 30 students will create two 4-by-4 foot paintings: one abstract piece and one that exemplifies the theme of futurism. 

“The goal is for them to feel like what they created is worthy of being paid, giving back to the community, and making people that live in these buildings feel welcome and happy in their spaces,” said Rachel Kantor Thomas, a Skyline High School art teacher and the art director for the internship. “Art is a viable career path, and students can impact others with their artwork.”

Andreana Lewis, 18, works on her art piece, featuring a depiction of Mother Nature, at Castlemont High School on June 27, 2023. Credit: Florence Middleton

In the past, Civic Design Studio has worked with students to create public art projects and contribute to cultural celebrations across Oakland to beautify the city. This summer’s internship is supported by OUSD’s ECCCO (Exploring College, Career, and Community Options) program, which offers compensation for students participating in summer internships. The Civic Design Studio interns are receiving $1,000 for their work this summer.

The internship looks very different from when it began in 2020. That year, students met virtually and did their artwork in their homes while Thomas and Tommy Wong, the owner of Civic Design Studio, drove materials and canvases between houses. The following year, the internship was held in person, but students wore masks and had to be distanced from each other. This year, for the first time, students gathered outdoors at the Castlemont High School campus and have all the resources of the FabLab. 

During the upcoming school year, Civic Design Studio will continue working at Castlemont to beautify the school’s neighborhood as well. 

“We want to add more art, creativity, and culture because deep East Oakland hasn’t been known for that necessarily,” Wong said. “It’s a totally creative and culturally rich place, but as far as the arts go, we want to establish that here in the deep because we’ve been doing it downtown and throughout Oakland for a long time.”

Alana Landrum works in the art studio located in Castlemont High School’s FabLab. Landrum was a Skyline High School 2022 graduate and former Civic Design Studio intern and now serves as a lead artist. Credit: Florence Middleton

Isaiah Johnson, a rising senior at Fremont High School, typically focuses his creativity in music and photography but was interested in the internship to develop his skills in painting. His abstract piece will feature an “angel of darkness” on a gloomy background rising above a row of flowers. When people look at the final project, Johnson wants them to know that art is a process that takes work.

“A lot of thought and hard work was put into it. This wasn’t done in one day. This is something that took multiple days, different ideas, and different concepts,” he said. “[The painting] is kind of gloomy, but the bigger picture is that the gloominess will bring something better towards the end.”

Interns works on their paintings at Castlemont High School on June 27, 2023. Credit: Florence Middleton

Oakland students’ artwork has been hung in other MidPen Housing projects at Brooklyn Basin, and the art that these students are creating will go up in an affordable housing development slated to be completed in February 2024, said Josie de Mira, the public art coordinator for the MidPen’s development department. She has been part of the collaboration with Civic Design Studio from the beginning and has seen the relationship between the housing developer, the studio, and Oakland schools grow stronger over the past few years. 

The organization also hopes to work with San Mateo high schools for a building in that area, she said. The Oakland students’ art will be displayed in lobbies, community rooms, multipurpose spaces, elevator lobbies, and hallways. 

“It just makes such a difference to have meaning and intention behind artwork in the building. Public art is communal in nature, so it makes art accessible to people who have historically been excluded from art spaces,” de Mira said. “I think it’s important that artwork in our building reflects our residents and the culture of the community, and it gives youth real-life projects to participate in and opportunities to grow as artists and creatives.”

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.