Skip to main content

WCU Stories

Connecting the past with the present, WCU students help with mural installation in Waynesville

Waynesville mural 1

WCU student Miguel Perez (left), muralist Kristy McCarthy and WCU student Jerel Tavares

By Julia Duvall

A big part of the hands-on learning students get at Western Carolina University involves building relationships and engaging with the local and regional community.

It was no different for the mural project at Pigeon Street Multicultural Development Center in Waynesville that two WCU students assisted with recently. Bringing together WCU students, community members and a New York City artist, turned into a work of art that celebrates the past, present and future.

Patrice Brown, professor in WCU’s interior design program, was doing research on Rosenwald Schools. These were state-of-the-art schools for African American children across the South that were built by Booker T. Washington of the Tuskegee Institute and Julius Rosenwald, philanthropist and president of Sears Roebuck.

The effort has been called the most important initiative to advance Black education in the early 20th century.

“My mother attended and taught at a Rosenwald school, so I started doing research in Alabama on the schools and discovered that North Carolina has the largest number with over 800,” Brown said. “When I found out about the project at the Pigeon Street Multicultural Development Center and that they wanted to hire students from WCU to help with the installation, I immediately thought of two students who would really jump on this.”

Those students being Miguel Perez, a senior from Cullowhee studying interior design, and Jerel Tavares, a sophomore from Wake Forest studying graphic design.

“I’ve lived in Cullowhee my whole life so I was very familiar with Waynesville and I thought this would be a great opportunity to try something new, which I don’t typically do,” Perez said. “This has been a great learning experience about mural installation and seeing the final project come to life is really cool.”

Waynesville mural 3


The original Pigeon Community School, then known as the Pigeon Street School, served African American students in Haywood County. It was a Rosenwald School built in 1924 and used until the existing school building was built in 1957. It was an elementary school until desegregation occurred in Haywood County in 1963. When it was no longer used as a school, the building served Haywood County Schools as an Instructional Materials Center.

The Pigeon Community Development Club began to use the building in early 2001 after the building was no longer needed by the school system. The organization became an official nonprofit under the umbrella of REACH and worked with the Center for Participatory Change in Asheville to transition into a standalone nonprofit organization.

In 2009, the center became the Pigeon Community Multicultural Development Center, which allowed the organization to help promote its longstanding goal of inclusiveness.

The Waynesville Art Council wanted to commemorate the history and reached out to the center to discuss having a mural done.

After a call for artists was put out, New York muralist Kristy McCarthy was chosen to create the mural, which she worked on in her studio for several months before loading up the sections of the mural and driving them to North Carolina to install as one piece.

The mural was painted in individual sections on a surface called polytab, a type of mural cloth which is also used to make parachutes. After the installation process, McCarthy, Perez and Taveres coated the mural with a UV-deflecting glaze that will preserve the artwork for at least 30 years.

“After Dr. Brown recommended me, I got in touch with George Kenny, who chairs the Waynesville Art Council to learn more about the project and it sounded very intriguing,” Taveres said. “You don’t get this type of opportunity often, so this was a great project to be a part of and learn about the installation process and getting to do the touch ups and making sure everything is laid out correctly. I learned a lot.”

Waynesville mural 4


A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held for the mural on June 28, where community members, alumni from the school, WCU faculty and students gathered to commemorate the moment.

The Forney family, who operate PSMDC, said the mural reflects this history with the left side showing images of the original school administrators and students, the sights of Pigeon Street from that time period through present day, and many symbolic elements such as the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains, a Cherokee basket weaving pattern, native blooms, important literature and a garden where community members are shown working together with the next generation of children.

Almost all elements of the mural are a nod to the past, present or future of the PSMDC.

Knowing the theme was already chosen, McCarthy conducted research and an in-person listening session with community members, as well as perusing through old photographs to come up with her vision for the mural, which spans across two exterior walls of the center.

“The purpose of the mural is to honor the history of the neighborhood and of this building and talk about the original Pigeon Street School that was in this building before it was the PCMDC,” McCarthy said. “It also shows what the center offers today, what values they have and the future of this neighborhood and this center. It was a huge project and we did it all together. I’m really proud of it. I hope everybody else is proud of it and feels like it represents them.”

Office of Web Services