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Optimistic About the Future, Proud of My Past

Hilton Head Middle School wall mural honors the island’s modern trailblazers.

By Carolyn Males

What better way to celebrate Hilton Head’s modern trailblazers than to tap artist Lauren Andreu to paint a 62-foot-long mural depicting eight men and woman who have inspired and influenced life on the island?

The mural titled “Optimistic About the Future, Proud of My Past” spreads across an inside corridor of Hilton Head Middle School. This vivid tableaux offers an opportunity for children and adults alike to discover more about recent local history through the deeds of these 20th- and 21st-century community leaders in historic preservation, environmental causes, social services, medicine, and sports.

Hannah White Barnwell (1904-1986), midwife and the island’s first registered nurse, pioneered the island’s first day care and kindergarten, setting them up in her own yard.

Carolina “Beany” Newhall (1904-1991) urged Sea Pines developer Charles Fraser to set aside land on the south end for a wildlife preserve. Today the Audubon Newhall Preserve named after this ardent conservationist features fifty acres of nature trails through forest and bog.

Charlotte Heinrichs (1907-2001), a public-health nurse, spearheaded the Deep Well Project. At a time when islanders living on back roads were getting sick from drinking contaminated water from shallow wells, she tackled the logistics of providing them with clean, safe water from deeper wells. Today the nonprofit organization she founded in 1973 helps low-income residents with food, shelter, and other basics.

Dr. Hector Esquivel (1938- 2019), a Colombian-born surgeon and family practitioner, was a strong advocate for the island’s Latin community. Today the Esquivel family carries on his humanitarian work as founders of La Isla magazine and the Lowcountry Immigration Coalition.

Gene Martin, owner of PIggly Wiggly, one of the island’s first grocery stores, is renowned for his generosity and commitment to community service. Over the years the Martin family has provided work opportunities for young people, donated food to community programs, and helped those in distress during hurricanes and times of economic difficulties.

Dr. Emory Campbell is a community leader whose activism and advocacy have had a big impact on health of the Gullah community and the preservation of its rich cultural heritage. Among his many accomplishments, he has served as executive director of The Penn Center, a Reconstruction Era National Monument, and has chaired the Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission, a Federal National Heritage Area encompassing the coastal areas of the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida.

Louise Miller Cohen founded the Gullah Museum of Hilton Head Island with an eye to teaching locals and visitors about life on the island before the bridge was built in 1956. Her mission centers on preserving the Gullah-Geechee culture by sharing her knowledge of native islander history and rituals through storytelling, preparing traditional food and herbal medicine, performing gospel songs, leading ring shouts, and teaching the Gullah language.

Dan Driessen, the Hilton Head-born Cincinnati Reds Baseball Hall of Famer, got his baseball start at age fourteen playing for the Hilton Head Blue Jays. Among the highlights of his fifteen-year major league baseball career was stepping up to bat as the National League’s first-ever designated hitter in a World Series, a first that took place during the Reds’ 1976 sweep of the Yankees.

The backstory

The idea for the mural was an offshoot of “The Pursuit of Freedom & Opportunity” project that Kathleen Harper, coordinator for the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program, and Jenn McEwen, Hilton Head Island’s director of cultural affairs, had envisioned for the school.

“We originally planned this as a paint-by-number community project for children and staff to work on with Lauren Andreu –– like we did at the Boys & Girls Club and at Island Rec Center,” McEwen says. But those plans shifted in the face of the pandemic when the school went to virtual instruction. Over the summer, Andreu painted the mural on her own.

Photo by Ronald Lopez

“Early on Jenn and I bounced around a lot of ideas for the mural and got suggestions from different people in the community,” says Andreu. “I could have painted an historic scene, but we liked the idea of portraying individuals who have been part of creating the diverse fabric of Hilton Head. And with the middle school being the most demographically diverse school in Beaufort County, we thought let’s run with that so all kids can feel like they’re included. That’s why Hector Esquivel’s inspirational words “Optimistic about the future, Proud of my past” are painted in English and Spanish “Optimista con el futuro, Orgulloso de mi pasado” below the media center window between the two mural panels.”

After researching and gathering photos from families and other sources, Andreu had to figure out how to fit and place everyone on the walls. “I started by doing a collage in a Photoshop-type program which gave me the freedom to play with composition and move things around,” she explains. “Then I painted it in a fun, loose style and used an artist-grade spray paint to get a wow factor –– so that anyone who sees it would think, Oh, this is exciting!”

Photo by Ronald Lopez

And the take-away? “It’s how much good one person can do especially right now with so much happening in the world. I want children and adults alike to think: I have a mark—big or small –– that I can make on this island –– or wherever I am.”