Young Minds

Search this site:

The Commonspace

May 2003 / young minds :: email this story to a friend

Tearing Down Walls by Painting on Them
By Sarah Paulsen
Photos by Brian H. Marston

I thought I'd share with you the motivations behind the project, what role I have had, and how I feel it reflects art making now. The beginning, I guess, relates to a couple of things for me. In my own work I was painting large, diverse group portraits of people. I noticed, though, that in every painting these people were on the verge of interaction or there were only a few people interacting. That sort of disturbed me because the painting came from a place of vision.

This idea that as separated people we have no voice or strength fueled me.

This was where things like dictatorship in Spain came from, a lack of voice — not a voice that is identical, but rather one that resonates from all of the differences in each part placed together as a whole. To create this space in physicality, to participate in this engaging with people and to develop a project in this process seemed to be a missing aspect of my own work and creative vision.

Meanwhile I worked at Shelter in Columbia, MO. Here I came to understand the plight of the migrant Latino in our community. Specifically, I saw the ways in which it affected their children, whom I tutored and hung out with. I would not want to say they were invisible, but because so many of them were without documents, they were unable to achieve an education level higher than high school. In addition, though they formed a sense of community with each other, they did not seem to interact with kids outside of their situation. I thought that seemed lonely and potentially incapacitating for them. It seemed to me that it would be so valuable to develop a safe, bilingual art class for expression and community, and then create a project to serve as voice and esteem. Mural-making seemed to be the ideal mode of expression, especially with the history of mural-making within the Latino and Chicano movements.

As good ideas seem to hang in the conscious atmosphere, I discovered Virginia Braxs in St. Louis and emailed her some of my ideas; she had been thinking of the same sort of project, and in fact she had just that last year set up a tutoring program with Wash U. students at the Southside Community Center with the help of Zully Kuster (education coordinator) and Ana Beatriz Paul (director of Southside). We named the project the Mural Arts Project, or M.A.P.

Over the summer I began to meet these kids at different outings. They did not easily befriend me, though they were interested in the idea of art projects. I began to research the Mexican Muralist movement and artists working up to the movement, as well as those who were later influenced by the Mexican Muralists. We decided that the art meeting and projects would be every Thursday.

But let me tell you, the first couple of classes were crazy. I soon realized that one huge aspect of this project was going to be verbal communication among myself, the tutors, the staff and the students. This project could not have gotten anywhere without the help of each person involved. The tutors worked with smaller groups of students and served as translators. I spoke both English and Spanish when giving directions. Many kids at first were very hesitant to draw or produce art imagery. Over time, though, we began to use the art as a tool for discussion. There are many anecdotes I could share with you, like the time we talked about Chicano art. I asked, "What is a Chicano?" and none of the kids knew. One older boy started pointing around the classroom, though, saying, "you and you and you." I got the chills to see in their faces this sort of self-recognition and cultural understanding of struggles. Lots of lessons were learned. That's just a sense of the relationship established among me, the tutors and the students — we were entirely interconnected.

Virginia, Eric Repice (cultural anthropologist and printmaker) and I started looking for art spaces. We went over to Cherokee Street because we knew a lot of Mexican tiendas and restaurants were going in. While knocking on doors we met with Pat Brannon of Casa Loma Ballroom. He liked our ideas and agreed to let us use his wall. We decided on the theme "World Music," since Casa Loma is a music venue and music is a method of finding common ground with other individuals. Eric Repice studied the San Francisco mural movement in the Mission District and presented his research to the youth group. We brainstormed different ideas, with the tutors serving as group leaders, and then began to illustrate our ideas.

The interesting thing to me is that the kids did not believe it would happen until we were actually outdoors painting the mural; they could just not fathom why anyone would give them this space.

Through various meetings with groups such as the Chamber of Commerce, the I.C.I. paint company, Home Depot and neighbors, we obtained the permission and support for painting our mural. This all leads up to the past few weeks. We wanted to have community painting days to share this project with everyone else living around this mural, to involve these kids in a larger sense of community and to branch past our mental limitations of the idea of community. So we got all our supplies ready, emailed out information for people wanting to help us and coordinated rides for our kids to get to the wall.

That first day I think we had around 30 people show up. I felt it was pretty amazing to see how everyone worked on different aspects, to watch how each person approached her painting — it was beautiful to me. The wall is 112 feet long, on Iowa near Cherokee. Imagery on the mural ranges from musicians and musical instruments to cultural struggles of moving to city life vs. country life to things that are precious, spiritual, and beautiful (i.e. Virgin de Guadalupe, Bob Dylan, hands praying, churches). There are children singing in flowers, drawings of St. Louis, references to world community and to Mexico.

Our short-term goal is to have the mural finished for the Cinco de Mayo celebration on May 4 on Cherokee Street. My personal long-term goal is to find a way to come up with funding so that I can eventually pay some of these kids to do something they enjoy so that feeling hopeless, entering gangs, or selling drugs does not seem like a solution in their show them that art is a viable option in their lives.

For me the entire project has been a work of art; the artwork is the making and interactions of a community. I would hope that in the future more projects like this would occur, more opportunities for projects like this would continue, and the collective group of people involved would be rewarded for being positive alternatives, themselves, to the disconnection and separation that plagues our world. I was refreshed to no longer be the detached observer, as so often the artist seems relegated into a corner to watch from afar and dissect/reflect later in her studio. Everyone became, I think, active participants. By serving each other in this way we have come to better understand our connection to this society and each other. I wish to see a culture alive with connection. We are the ones who envision the future; let's envision it with creativity, connection and interdependence.

[Click a thumbnail image below to pop up the large version.]


Church and State | Games | Expatriates | Communities | From the Source
It's All Happening | Young Minds | The Ordinary Eye | Elsewhere
Sights and Sounds | Media Shoegaze | A Day's Work | From the Editor

© 2003 The Commonspace