Super Nikki: How a mural project united and healed a community
Thursday, May 26th, 2022
Can art heal? Can a mural painted by artists, friends, and community continue, even after nearly two decades, to unify people in tribute and remembrance?
In Berks County’s Wilson School District, the answer is a resounding yes.
Art can have a profound and lasting impact on those who view it — and on the artists themselves. This is the story about how one project, a mural painted to honor a young student who died in 2004, continues to impact a community, her friends, and the artists who worked on her tribute all those years ago.
Her name: Nikki Overman. She was in 6th grade at Lincoln Park Elementary School when doctors discovered a pair of holes in her heart. Despite surgery, Nikki passed away in 2004.
Her school community was devastated. Nikki’s friends still remember her as one-of-a-kind burst of positive energy, a lover of superheroes and comic books. Her teachers recall Nikki’s fantastic imagination, her strength, her confidence.
What better way to pay tribute to Nikki than a mural of superheroes, with a grinning, caped Super Nikki at the center? It became a school community art project: Wilson High School art teacher Robert Chappel and some of his students were tapped to meet with Nikki’s classmates to design the mural and to head up painting a tribute to Super Nikki on the playground of her school.
One of those Wilson High School students was Joe Palumbo, who would head the next fall to PCA&D as an Illustration major. He and two other high school art students, along with Chappel, met with Nikki’s classmates to get their input and design the Super Nikki character. Together with those 6th-graders, the high school artists spent several weeks painting the huge mural on the Lincoln Park Elementary School playground.
“While we were painting the mural with her friends, you start realizing that you’re helping people heal,” Palumbo remembers. “Sweat and tears literally fell into the paint as we were working. Everyone was literally and figuratively putting themselves into the work.”
At the mural’s May 2004 dedication, Palumbo says, the entire community turned out and “I realized we weren’t just helping her class heal, we helped a whole community heal and come together. Seeing this at such a large scale is very powerful. Even amongst some of my artistic life goal type of accomplishments, this is one of the projects I’m most proud of.”
Nearly 20 years later, it was time for art to work its healing power once again.
Though her friends’ memories of Nikki hadn’t faded, the fate of her playground mural was a different story. Time and weather had taken a toll on Super Nikki, who was barely visible on the playground macadam. Former classmate Tyler Mogel and Zach Mehle, a friend of Nikki’s, paired up to repaint the Super Nikki character, but an even bigger threat to the artwork loomed: Wilson School District was selling the Lincoln Park Elementary School property.
A new art project, one based on the original, would be needed to continue this story of remembrance and healing. And Palumbo, a 2008 PCA&D graduate and now Gallery Director of Wilson High School’s Grandview Gallery, would again be called to action.
Working closely with Mogel, Chappel, and Scott Graber, a plan was developed. A pair of mural reproductions would be created: One 30-by-30-inch canvas would be given to Nikki’s family. And the second would be displayed permanently in the school district. Palumbo completed one of the re-creations himself. For the other, he just completed the characters’ outlines — and, just as with the original mural, some of Nikki’s friends gathered to fill the outlines with vibrant color.
This time, Palumbo went a step further. During the pandemic, he learned video editing, using his new skill to make short videos of Grandview Gallery’s exhibits. Using the vast Wilson network, and with help from Mogel, Chappel, and Graber, Palumbo reached out to Nikki’s friends and former teachers to ask for their memories of the mural and of Nikki herself. The aim, Palumbo says, was to explain “why this project was so important to so many.”
The result is Super Nikki: A Story of Kindness, a 22-minute documentary that not only tells the history of the original mural, but also tells “Nikki’s story, and the 18-year journey of this mural project,” Palumbo says.
This spring, the mural reproductions were unveiled, and the premiere of Super Nikki was held.
Over the years since working on the original mural, Palumbo says, he’s visited the playground original to pay his respects to Nikki and the Lincoln Park community, and to reflect on the experience. He says he’s known since he was a child that he wanted to work in the comics, fantasy, and sci-fi genre, “so that was already in me as far as the type of art I wanted to create professionally. But what the mural experience really did was (make me) realize the importance of philanthropy. Not just monetarily, but giving in the way that you know how. For me, it’s always been art and sharing that knowledge with like-minded people.”
Co-chairing PCA&D’s Alumni Council has been one way Palumbo has continued to share that knowledge, his commitment to art, and his skills, But what does it mean to an artist to be able to use their talents in a way that immediately impacts a community?
It’s a question, Palumbo says, that’s so hard to answer.
“You’re humbled, honored, thrilled, and emotional all at the same time,” he says. “You’re so happy the work is received well and moved by everyone’s response to something you helped create that means the world to so many.”
Top photo: Joe Palumbo ’08, Illustration, unveils his re-creation of a mural honoring Nikki Overman, a Wilson School District student who passed away in 2004.
Super Nikki: A Story of Kindness video courtesy Joe Palumbo and Wilson School District