A Michigan high-schooler who painted a mural at their local middle school’s health center found her work under fire from concerned parents Monday. The mural, painted by Grant Middle School sophomore Evelyn Gonzales, depicts students wearing colors found on LGBTQ pride flags, doodles of cartoon characters from “Amphibia” and “The Owl House,” a hamsa — a palm-shaped symbol considered to bring good luck and protection in many cultures — and video game fan art.
But some parents saw things differently.
At a school board meeting earlier this week, those parents decried the mural’s LGBTQ imagery and “witchcraft”-related symbols, as reported by WZZM, a local Grand Rapids news station. The parents also claimed that the video game art — identified as a “Genshin Impact” character by video game publication Kotaku — was actually a depiction of Satan.
The mural, located at Grant Middle School in Grant, Mich., includes the message “Stay healthy” and depicts students wearing colors found on the trans and bisexual pride flags. Another student is shown in overalls with a rainbow-striped T-shirt. During public comments, parents singled out several elements of the mural they claimed were problematic, including the small doodle of a hamsa, which one man called “hate material.”
Danielle Beight, one of the attendees, criticized the LGBTQ representation, and compared transgender identity to a sickness.
“When adults pretend things that are like real life, it’s a mental illness,” Beight said in video footage of the meeting captured by WZZM. “We need counselors. We need medication that’s going to help bipolar disorder. Fix their brains.”
Gonzales, whose design was selected in a competition, tearfully defended her work during the meeting. She argued the mural was intended to promote inclusivity and does not depict what the parents claim.
“I put my art up there to make people feel welcome,” Gonzales said.
Unconvinced, one adult alleged that Gonzales was trying to fool the adults at the meeting.
“I feel like she did a really good job finding excuses to defend the things she put on,” said Katelyn Thompson, one of the speakers captured in WZZM’s segment on the meeting. “None of us are that stupid.”
Kotaku writes that the drawing of what some parents described as the face of Satan is actually a mask worn by the character Xiao in “Genshin Impact,” a popular action role-playing game. In the game, Xiao is an immortal guardian of the Liyue region tasked with defeating the land’s evil spirits. Donning the mask pictured in the mural triggers Xiao’s ability Bane of All Evil, and its design is inspired by those worn in Nuo opera, a genre of Chinese opera developed from ancient religious ceremonies intended to drive away demons.
The mural also includes several references to “The Owl House,” a Disney cartoon about a young girl studying witchcraft in the demon realm that has been widely celebrated for its queer representation. A small image of the character Hooty and magical glyphs from the series are scattered among the drawings of students. Another cartoon character, Sprig from “Amphibia,” can be seen as well.
Grant Public Schools later issued a statement that the mural will remain up despite the pushback, albeit with some changes. Several contested elements, including the “Genshin Impact” mask and hamsa hand, were not part of her original contest submission.
“At the student artist’s request, the mural will be returned to its original form as originally submitted and approved by the administration,” the statement reads.
Across social media, users condemned the outrage from parents and expressed their support for the artist. Dana Terrace, creator of “The Owl House,” on Twitter encouraged Gonzales not to let the haters bring her down.
“If you’re the student artist I just wanna say you don’t deserve that vitriol and KEEP CREATING! Me and the [Owl House] crew are rooting for ya!” she wrote.