Story by Melody Guyton Butts, Assistant Director of Communications
When it comes to topics he feels deeply about, words aren’t always enough for Ash Granda-Bondurant ’23.
“I'm not always great with describing how I feel in words or writing, so processing things works better in my art,” the Durham Academy Upper Schooler says. “If I have a passion for something, there's probably some kind of art piece for it.”
Indeed. Granda-Bondurant’s artwork — and the passions inspiring it — can be seen all around Durham Academy and beyond. There’s the Black Lives Matter mural on the Upper School field house that’s the result of a Cavalier Capstone project he led last spring. There’s the three-dimensional, mixed-media piece depicting the changes to the subject’s body after gender-affirming surgery that hung in the lobby of Kenan Auditorium this fall. There are the “Stop Hate/Protect Trans Rights” T-shirts worn all over campus that Granda-Bondurant designed to raise funds for the Transgender Law Center. And on the CommunityWorx building in Carrboro, there is the Black Lives Matter mural that Granda-Bondurant helped design and paint alongside a team including Carina Rockart ’21 and Theo Preston ’23 last winter.
A year after the Carrboro mural was completed, Granda-Bondurant said it’s still surreal to see it.
“Getting out there as an artist, you have to put yourself there, and you have to go for it. And there's never a guarantee of success,” he said. “I don't think I [signed] my actual name on it, so not everyone knows I did that. But they're gonna feel something about it, you know?”
When the town of Carrboro put out a call for Black Lives Matter mural design proposals in late 2020, Granda-Bondurant felt moved to act and encouraged Rockart and Preston to join him in submitting a design and samples of their work. After reviewing 17 submissions, the Carrboro Town Council chose to merge the DA students’ design with one submitted by working artist Tyrone Small — and they teamed up with local middle schooler Cyani Jacobs to bring their collective vision to life. The floral-themed mural — which features the words “Black Lives Matter” including the names of some of the Black men who have been killed by law enforcement officers and three figures, one of whom holds a sign reading “hands up, don’t shoot” — was completed in December 2020.
The mural is among several pieces Granda-Bondurant created in response to racial injustice. In a “This I Believe” speech he recorded as part of DA Upper School’s 2021 Martin Luther King Jr. Day observance, he recalled how he felt in early 2020 as reports of Black people being killed by law enforcement officers filled the news.
“I went to what I know. Sadness, sorrow, anger, all kinds of emotions leaving my body and being left on the page,” he said in the speech. “… I was so tired of looking at the news or going online to see that another precious life was taken too early.”
Granda-Bondurant knew those feelings were pervasive among the student body at DA, so as work wrapped up on the CommunityWorx mural, his wheels began turning with ideas for something similar on DA’s campus — where the modern new buildings cried out for a “pop of color,” he said. After approaching Upper School Dean of Students Lindy Frasher with the idea, he began working with visual art teacher Anne Gregory-Bepler, with a plan for the two of them to work on it together after school.
But when Gregory-Bepler proposed the idea of turning the project into a spring 2021 Cavalier Capstone — one of several year-culminating experiences for students in grades 9 to 11 — Granda-Bondurant knew they had their answer. With multiple students involved in its creation, the mural’s message would be amplified and it could be completed more quickly. So with the back side of the field house selected for its smooth surface and visibility from much of campus, he and the Capstone participants embarked on the challenge of creating a design for the extremely wide canvas.
“We ended up dividing it into three sections. There's our message, ‘United We Stand’ that, hopefully, later on, I can get more people to add their handprints on in sort of a statement like, this is us, we are united,” he explained. “And then the main figure in the middle with her arm raised in a fist, she is sort of our representation of Lady Liberty. She's got the warm colors around her kind of like the sun and in a geometric pattern. And then we wanted to incorporate all kinds of people of color — that’s something that I thought was super important.”
Granda-Bondurant again brought together a cross-section of the Upper School community in February 2021 by leading a Black History Month art workshop in which each participant painted one section of a design honoring Martin Luther King Jr. He split the piece into a grid so that when taken apart, each individual part was unrecognizable.
“I wanted to keep participants from being worried about their skill level and more focused on having fun with the colorful paints,” he explained. “… The activity was a way to represent how each individual is a piece to this larger whole, like a group of people working toward a common goal.”
His passions for art and social justice also intersected in spring 2021 after a conversation among leaders of DA’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance.
“2020 and 2019 were really bad for murders and hate crimes toward transgender communities and queer people, LGBTQ+ people in general, especially Black and Indigenous People of Color,” Granda-Bondurant said. “We had talked about it before, and once we found out about different laws and legislation [limiting the rights of transgender people] that had been coming out, we were like, this isn't something we can just sit here and ignore, we had to call attention to it.”
They hatched a plan to sell T-shirts not only to raise awareness of their concerns, but also to raise funds for the Transgender Law Center, a national organization advocating for transgender rights.
“And I was like, I've done this before. I'll design something,” Granda-Bondurant recalled. The back of the shirt features a pink and periwinkle blue handprint and the words “Protect Transgender Rights,” and the front asks “Stop Hate?” with a finger pointing to “yes.”
“That's a choice, you know — choosing whether or not you are going to be part of the hate and the anger toward people who are different is entirely up to you,” Granda-Bondurant explained.
The cost of the T-shirts was covered by a DA family, so the GSA was able to donate the entire $700 raised to the Transgender Law Center. In an email to those who supported the effort, GSA advisor and Upper School English teacher Dr. Harry Thomas noted that it was the GSA’s most successful fundraiser in his nearly 10 years at the school and offered kudos to the student designer: “HUGE shout-out to the GSA’s own Ash Granda-Bondurant, who pretty much single-handedly willed this fundraiser — and its T-shirts — into existence.”
The shirts are emblematic of how Granda-Bondurant uses art to make sense of what can be a chaotic, unjust world.
“I draw in order to see, to process. To me, drawing is a way to discover. And that’s not just a phrase, it is true,” he said in his “This I Believe” speech. “The act of drawing makes an artist look at any object in front of them, dissect it in their mind’s eye and put it together again so they can understand it. I draw so I can figure out what I need to know and to let the world know what I see.”