When Choctawhatchee High School Principal Michelle Heck began thinking about the 70th Anniversary of her beloved school, she knew she wanted to start with something memorable.
- The high school officially opened its doors on September 22, 1952 when the Indians were at the current Meigs Middle School campus.
“70th is a really big deal,” said Heck. “I remember the feeling when Chocataw turned 50, and then 60. I remember the lasting impact it made on me when I was a staff member. To now be the Principal for the 70th, I just knew that something really special needed to happen for the students and staff.”
As she was planning what festivities would take place for the 70th Anniversary, she remembered a Choctaw alum by the name of EJ Nieves. EJ was a freshman during Heck’s first year of teaching at Choctaw.
“I didn’t know EJ when he was a student, but I remember some of the things he did during his 4 years at Choctaw,” she said. “I remember seeing his picture in the newspaper with the very first class president from 1952. So EJ’s name, for years, has circled with me.”
Nieves is a product of the Okaloosa County School District. His family was military and relocated to Eglin Air Force Base when he was in the third grade. He graduated from Choctaw in 2002.
During his time at the school, Nieves was:
- Class president for 3 years.
- Prom King.
- Involved with the school’s paper, “Smoke Signals”, where he did editorial cartooning.
- Created the class t-shirt his sophomore, junior & senior year.
- Created the football booster t-shirt.
After a brief tenure as an art teacher, he is now a professional artist, gallery owner, and muralist in Ocala, Florida. This year marks his 10th Anniversary as a professional artist.
As fate would have it, Lewis Middle School Principal Lindsey Smith and Nieves are friends. Smith posted on social media a picture of a custom jean jacket design that Nieves had created for her for School Spirit Days. Principal Heck saw the picture and immediately knew that Nieves was who she needed for her vision.
“I saw the picture and commented ‘Hey Ej. I’m next.’” laughed Heck.
Having never officially met, Heck and Nieves would go on to have an hour long conversation about her vision. Although she didn’t know exactly what she wanted, she knew it was bigger than a jean jacket. She knew it was bigger than a painting in his gallery in Ocala.
She knew she had lots of walls throughout the school.
She knew a mural would be perfect on one of them.
At this point, Nieves now resides in Ocala and hasn’t walked the halls of Choctaw in 20 years. After a FaceTime call where Heck re-introduced Nieves to the halls he once roamed, they landed on the perfect spot for his creation.
“I knew his story, I knew his connection to school and I didn’t have to explain Big Green,” said Heck. “I didn’t have to explain one thing about school tradition, heritage, or the diversity of the school population. I didn’t have to do any of that because he wasn’t a stranger. He knows what it is like to walk in the halls like our kids do.”
Creative freedom to create the GBG Mural
Given the green light, Nieves now had the freedom to display his artistic ability on one of the main hallways inside Choctaw. He began by sketching out his initial idea on his iPad, and the projected that sketch onto the hallway over the Labor Day weekend to begin painting.
As Nieves explains, the mural features a Choctawhatchee Indian with a headdress but the figure isn’t necessarily a man or a woman.
“The piece speaks to unity and freedom and features a geometric-formed Indian that has a futuristic look to it,” he added. “The Indian is also looking into the future. The idea is to give the kids a reminder that they have the rest of their lives ahead of them, and to keep your best foot forward even in uncertainty”
It is very bold, and a style that Nieves says he created called “shock” which combines the sharp and block-styles together. It features a lot of crisp black edges and bold colors, reminiscent of gritty comic books he grew up on.
“It has been an amazing weekend full of nostalgia, laughs, cry sessions, and Big Green spirit,” said Nieves. “This one is extremely near and dear to me! Leaving my mark at my Alma Mater is beyond words!”
For Principal Heck, she only saw the artwork two weeks ago but just knew that she trusted EJ to design something that would be powerful and huge and impactful.
“I can’t wait to get to school on Tuesday at 6:20am and park myself in the main intersection and just watch people’s reaction. I really can’t,” she said. “I just want to hear what kids have to say. I want to hear their whispers. I want to hear their comments to their friends and see the expressions on staff member’s faces.”
Over the month of September, Heck says she is excited to have the opportunity to talk more with students about the meaning of the GBG Mural and EJ’s vision behind it. She’s also excited to see it used in everyday life at Choctaw.
“I can see students taking pictures in front of it, and it will certainly be a backdrop for a lot of things that are staged at the school,” she added. “Teams taking pictures, art classes studying it, and much more.”
With a lot to be excited for on Tuesday morning, there is one moment that gets Principal Heck excited the most…
“What I’m most excited about is the kid that’s walking down the hallway, and maybe it’s in the middle of class when the halls are empty and quiet, and just walking by it and looking at it when no one’s around as a distraction and they stop and take it all in,” she said.
Looking ahead, the 70th Anniversary of the Choctaw Indians doesn’t end with the mural. Heck says she and her staff are finalizing the Homecoming celebrations that will bring back many of the Choctaw traditions that have been missing since 2019.
- “We are doing it really big with our alumni reception and we will have 4 former Principals here to celebrate,” she said. “And we are opening up alumni groups to come and be part of the parade that’s coming back.”