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Aykeem Spivey

Aykeem Spivey '24 in front of the mural he painted at the Rock Island Center for Math and Science.

Spivey’s memorial mural replaces tears with joy

At first, he hesitated. Then he remembered what his mom always tells him: “If you ever feel you’re not qualified for something, always do it anyway.”

So yes! That was Augustana senior Aykeem Spivey’s answer when his art professor, Peter Xiao, emailed him over the summer to ask if he would paint a memorial mural inside the Rock Island Center for Math and Science. The mural would commemorate Kris Hays, who taught in the school district for more than 20 years. She passed away from cancer a year ago. 

“Aykeem, you should do this,” Spivey remembers his professor telling him. “I think you want to do this.”

“But this was so different, so new,” said Spivey, an art/psychology double major. “I’d never done anything as big as this, and the context of what it was for seemed so meaningful to so many people, and that was 110% intimidating, but I said yes.”

“If you are lucky enough to spend time with Aykeem, you can tell he is kind, creative and sort of a unicorn out in this world. Kris would adore him, which makes it even more special.” 

– Shaya Smith, who contacted Augustana with the hope of finding someone to paint the memorial mural

In early November, Hays’ family members, friends and co-workers gathered to celebrate the 20-foot by 10-foot mural Spivey designed and painted for no fee. Those who knew Hays recognized the personal touches Spivey made sure he brought to the mural. 

“I didn’t know her, but through painting this, I feel like I got to know her better,” he said. “And from what I’ve been told, the small connections she and I shared are special because you really just can’t make that up.”

Located next to the classroom where Hays taught, the mural’s outdoor scene features animals, sunflowers, butterflies and two people sitting in butterfly chairs reading books on imagination and on being unique. Hays’ favorite color purple (and Spivey’s) is featured, as well as how deer would eat the sunflower seeds she planted at the school and how she inspired her students to be their authentic selves — something that especially resonated with Spivey. 

“I don’t think Aykeem understands the gift he has given us — one that will carry Kris’ legacy for years to come,” said Shaya Smith, a fourth-grade teacher who taught across the hall from Hays’ classroom for nine years. 

Aykeem Spivey

Aykeem Spivey and Shaya Smith, one of Kris Hays' teaching partners, at the celebration reception.

“If you are lucky enough to spend time with Aykeem, you can tell he is kind, creative and sort of a unicorn out in this world. Kris would adore him, which makes it even more special.”

Coming full circle
Spivey never anticipated spending so much time painting at an elementary school for two weeks last summer and the first few weeks of his senior year at Augustana. And for someone who didn’t used to like painting that much, he’s shocked to still find himself painting every day. 

Now that the mural is completed, he is devoting more time to his two Senior Inquiry projects.

For his art Senior Inquiry with Professor Xiao, he’s painting a series of portraits of strangers and people he knows who have made an impact on him. His psychology Senior Inquiry with Dr. Jamie Nordling is more research-oriented. Spivey is looking at graduate programs in art therapy. 

“Art therapy has been on my mind since I got to Augie,” Spivey said. “But I was more interested in the research than the art part. I didn’t think I’d be this into art when I got here, but I think it’s only encouraged the idea of doing art therapy even more. So it’s all starting to come full circle.”

He credits his mentor, Professor Xiao, with continually encouraging him to keep painting, to keep figuring himself out through the canvas. “One day it just clicked, and those words have stuck with me ever since,” Spivey said. 

Professor Xiao is convinced Spivey is headed for the big time. “He’s the future,” Professor Xiao said. “If he goes to New York or L.A. to expand his opportunities, he has the personality, scope and talent to be famous.”

Healing through art
At the reception to celebrate the completion of Spivey’s mural, some of Hays’ family members were moved to tears by what he created in Hays’ memory.

“It was amazing to see something I made make a person feel that way,” Spivey said. “That’s something I’d love to be a recurring thing … 100%.”

Spivey said the opportunity to paint the mural impacted him more than he expected. Others felt the same.

“Watching the mural unfold was quite healing,” Smith said. “The families during conferences came to see it, and I could hear them talking about Mrs. Hays. Teachers who normally don’t come to our hallway came to look at its progress with smiles and stories, as well. 

“Joy has replaced our tears, and that would make Kris happy.”


Spivey's mural incorporates many of Kris Hays' personal interests — animals, sunflowers, butterflies and books.

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