I will be honest, I used to not fully understand why murals were the go-to community development art form. It wasn’t until I was tasked with project managing two murals during the summer of 2014 in my role at The Union for Contemporary Art that I became an enthusiastic believer in their role in fostering vibrant communities.
In progress: “The Ancestor, The Identity, and the Seed” by Reggie LeFlore, Summer 2018
The process of making a mural in collaboration with community is not always easy. There is the work of finding the perfect location, in ideal condition, with an open minded owner willing to give the reins over to the community and artists to decide the imagery. The tall ladders and novices on scissor lifts. Working through design and engagement meetings to create something that incorporates many aspirations in one succinct design and still inspires the artist while utilizing their visual voice.
And oh boy, the weather. It must be some sort of mural requirement that it is either too hot, too cold, or too rainy to paint for at least some of your painting window.
Despite the challenges, a few days into my first mural project, it clicked.
Murals can foster a space that is both parts accessible and mystical. Everyone can play a part from the lead artist to the neighbor who brings snacks and water on a hot day. The people honking to show their support and excitement as they drive by are just as important to the experience as the neighbor who stops by every day to paint and chat with the artists.
Yet, there is still the spark, the awe, and the joy of a finished art piece located in the community, designed in partnership with neighbors and the artist’s vision that cannot be replicated.
Community Paint Day for “Altered Perspective” by Destiny Palmer, Summer 2020
The real magic comes on what is known as “Community Paint Day.” This is a day we intentionally build into the process where the base layer and design of the mural are already on the wall, but the final touches are still far off so that there is nothing that can mess up the work. This makes way for community members of all ages to pick up a brush and put their own mark on the mural. (It is also a great way to get a lot of paint up on the wall quickly.)
These day-long events bring out all ages and become a loom weaving stories of the community together. People meet their neighbors, share laughs over spilled or dripping paint, and elders share stories about when they were young and remember contributing to the mural down the street that has become faded and worn. These events are a beautiful reason to bring people together, they are the heart of the process and quite possibly the true art of a mural.
Murals can be interactive! This mural, “Welcome to Historic Florence” by Christine Stormberg invites people to pose in front of the heart for a photo moment.
Every mural is a new lesson in how schlepping ladders can be its own gift to the community. How engagement takes all forms and that a daily honk from the bus driver on his regular route can offer the most meaningful support. Art is a powerful tool and can impact our communities for generations.