The Power of Public Art Page 2
Chester park in the spring, after school: teen boys in white tee shirts play basketball; girls, double-Dutch artists, jump between the ropes with their braids flying. Policemen guard the entrance. One morning, there was a drug bust in front of the men's shelter across from the Y. Police cars approached from four directions, converged at the corner, searched backpacks, slapped handcuffs on the wrists of four men. People on the street just watched quietly. I watched from the second-floor window of our studio, the space kindly donated to us by the Chester YWCA, as the kids painted, safely inside. The newspapers are full of such crime stories, but less frequently does the media report on dedicated Chester men and women working to be role models for youth.
The first goal of the Collective was to show our students that they could be cultural actors and creators. Before they begin painting, I show each visiting school class or volunteer group a slide show of murals from around the world. Most of the murals were chosen for messages of community freedom, or the stories of the Black and Hispanic artists themselves, whom I suspected the kids could relate to more immediately than 16th-century European artists. The images ranged from Black pride murals in Chicago, to the work of Chicana artists in San Francisco, to contemporary Senegalese political murals. I included a portrait of Frederick Douglass, because the students were always surprised to find him painted on a street in Ulster, Northern Ireland. By the time I reached images of New York subway trains in the 1970s, covered in graffiti of sphinxes or smiling Madonnas or R.I.P. memorials, the kids are uncharacteristically silent. I often look at these pictures even when I'm not leading a class - if they inspire me, I hope so badly that they will move the kids, show them the different ways people find to express themselves and transform their cities.
After the slide show, the kids work on painting the mural itself. The method we used was to paint on tough cloth panels on the floor, which is far safer than working outdoors, and is much more durable because the paint doesn't touch the wall. The image is broken down into squares corresponding to each panel, then projected and traced. We laid out the whole design on the floor, and students filled it in like paint-by-numbers. At first they were shy, making small, diffident strokes, but as they gained confidence and skill they began to relax into the process. One can never be sure whether one's teaching has any impact on the students, but I had a great moment of satisfaction. I got a call from a middle school student who had been absent from the studio for a while because of an illness. He said in one breath that he was better and out of the hospital and did we finish the mural yet? Only a small amount of painting remained at that point. His father brought him in the next morning, and he solemnly finished painting the last panel.
I remember those long spring afternoons painting with children and teens as an incredible time, a sort of jam session for artists. I thank the students for their incredible faith in me, the Chester Mural Collective, and in themselves. It takes courage to pick up a paintbrush for the first time and paint a mural their mothers and their mayor will see everyday on their drives to work.
ith a week to go before our dedication ceremony, the wall was still bare, and the weather was uncommonly hot, especially near the trash plants. The process of scraping down and priming that enormous, tar-covered wall had held us up. I sent out desperate but politely worded e-mails to everyone I know at Swarthmore, asking for help with mounting the panels of the mural, and requesting people to meet at 7a.m. so we could work before it got too hot. Mounting the mural entailed working up on a scaffold with huge quantities of NovaGel, an industrial glue that chemically fuses the parachute cloth panels to the wall. Because the Collective did not yet have liability insurance, only Swarthmore students could work on the scaffolding. Frightfully early the next morning, I was astonished to see several Swatties, friends, and acquaintances, waiting by the Rose Garden.
Panel by panel, the mural took shape on the wall. We worked all day every day that week, and the volunteers kept coming. Two CD's lifted our spirits: "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" and "The Best of Marvin Gaye," which we played all day, on a loop. I will never forget standing by the Second Street highway, giddy with sleeplessness, watching the mural go up. At lunchtime we sat under the shade of the scaffold, eating Italian take-out kindly ordered for us by the hardware store owners, Pat and Richard Steinberg of Swarthmore. I think one of the Collective's greatest achievements was creating an experience of true camaraderie among people, from children to college students to adult volunteers. Our continuing challenge is to maintain as open a system of organization as possible-open meetings, open decision-making process-while making the Collective represent a community's voice. On the personal side, my friendships with Michelle McIver and Delores Freeman are among the most beautiful and creative I've known.
Last spring, after hearing Dr. Elijah Anderson speak at the Beyond the Box conference at Swarthmore and reading his book Code of the Street, I e-mailed him to talk about his work with North Philly, an area similar to Chester. I told him about the Collective's struggles, and my hopes for what public art - if truly created by the community - might be able to accomplish. I told him about my difficulties in going back and forth from Swarthmore to Chester every day, the shock of taking the bus to seemingly different countries five miles away from each other. We talked about the many stories of the inner city that go unspoken in academia, and what our roles might be in working with both communities. As we parted, he said, "Your job is to keep reminding people, to keep people outraged."
ow a mural will influence the spirit of a neighborhood is always a mystery. The use of public space is always a contentious issue, and I believe it is very important to maintain spaces for non-commercial use. In its highest form, public art can be a means of community self-representation, a kind of visual journalism. Chester is now about to undergo a period of change. A Harrah's casino and racetrack are opening on the waterfront, despite considerable community opposition, and other changes to the commercial landscape are in store. That area of the city was newly renamed "The Wharf at Rivertown," to distance it from the word Chester. Bright purple banners began to appear, carving out that area in preparation for the racetrack's opening on September 10th of this year. The city has promised that the casino will create 800 to 900 jobs. Regardless of the casino's outcome, many feel that community members were not sufficiently involved in the planning process. I hope that more and more people will become involved with the mural program, and see it as an opportunity to reclaim the walls and public spaces of their city.
I am not from Chester, so my role is that of a mural organizer, not designer. I have often daydreamed, though, about where and what I would paint. My favorite site is on the wall of Murray's Furniture building, which faces the bus depot and the Septa/Amtrak line. It is also near the skeleton of Sleeper's College, where trees grow through empty bay windows. As of now, the wall is a void right in the heart of town, where energy and beauty is needed the most. My mural design would echo Sleeper's College, but that building full of wild trees would become an image of rebirth - flowers and trees would bloom on city rooftops, the landscape metaphorically rebalancing itself through the creativity of its inhabitants.
What is would stand beside an image of what could be.