CLARK, NJ - For Olivia Swider, art has always come naturally, so it was no surprise when she was asked to paint a mural depicting acceptance at Arthur L. Johnson High School.  The mural is taking shape on the second floor hallway of the school.

“I’ve been drawing since I was a kid. I didn’t take any classes or anything, so I’m self-taught,” the sophomore proudly said of her illustrating ability. When she reached high school, she took as many art classes as she could.  “I took puppetry last year, and crafts and graphic design this year,” she explained.

In May, 2014, Ronald Ferrara, Arthur L. Johnson’s Anti-bullying Coordinator, approached Swider about the possibility of painting a mural depicting the concept of mutual respect and acceptance.

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“It wasn’t my idea, but I’m glad I was chosen for the opportunity,” Swider said. “Nadia Radwan and I started the project together.”

The mural highlights several individuals of varying ethnicities, clothing, body types, and hairstyles. “Mr. Geschwendt was the old anti-bullying coordinator, and we wanted this to be the anti-bullying hallway,” Ferrara said, referring to the hallway outside his office door. “We had no vision as to specific artwork, but we wanted it to incorporate positive goals of our school.”

Ferrara discovered Swider’s talent during last year’s Middle States Accreditation Evaluation process. The Middle States Commission on Higher Education requires an evaluation so that ALJ may be accredited as a resource that defines, maintains, and promotes educational excellence with a diverse mission and student population.

“Last year, one of the homeroom meetings was centered around F.O.C.U.S. [Future, Opportunity, Character, Unity, Success].  We had students create a window display that depicted our mission statement. Ms. Jacobi’s homeroom won, and I asked her who drew the art so well. She said one of her students, Olivia, and the conversation changed to if [Olivia] would be okay with starting a mural with Nadia,” Ferrara said.

Radwan and Swider began the project soon after they were approached about it.

“I was chosen to do it, and I wanted to follow through. I had nothing better to do my freshman year. I wanted to paint,” Swider said. By June, the first paint was put on the wall, and the mural has continued to expand ever since.

“She [Nadia] was working on her part, and I was working on mine over the summer.  Occasionally, I will have other friends help me out on basic painting but I do much of it,” Swider said.  

“Sometimes Olivia will stay late with friends, and she works. She’s focused and very particular on what she does. She likes to work on her own time,” Ferrara added.

Swider has drawn much of her inspiration from external sources. A personal favorite is “Homestuck,” a web comic about a group of teenagers who are acquaintances over the internet. Favorite cartoons include Southpark and Steven Universe.

“My friends are nice about [the mural], and I get inspiration from cartoons and comics as well,” she said.

The mural will be completed in June of 2015.

Ferrara said he wishes that if any student would like to contribute to the hallway, they do. “There’s always ideas to go around,” he said.

Editor's Note: Maryann Makosiej is a student at Arthur L. Johnson High School and a member of the TAP team at ALJ.