Mosaics and Murals, Celebrating the Plural

Murals and mosaics have a unique place in the collective culture of a society. Like all forms of art, the purpose of public art is to communicate, however, the mural and mosaic speak in an especially elaborate manner due to their size and where they are displayed. Since these works of art are intended to be highly visible in the public space, the design and implementation of a successful public artwork should incorporate elements of the environment where it will be on view. These details might include (but are not limited to) honoring historic moments or figures, addressing public health concerns (see: Keith Haring’s Crack Is Wack, 1986), raising environmental awareness and celebrating particular achievements of the local community.

Some examples of community focused public art projects include murals, mosaics and site-specific relief sculpture created by artists and arts organizations such as Mural Arts Philadelphia, the Chicago Public Art Group, John T. Biggers, Kerry James Marshall, Pedro Silva and CITYarts’, John Ahearn, Rigoberto Torres and the various contributing artists to the Audubon Mural Project. These projects illuminate ideas/hopes/dreams, important community personalities, inspirational achievements, pertinent issues and other relevant topics. 

Murals and mosaics are a vibrant source of enjoyment and efficacy for cities across the world, which is why you’re likely to encounter them nearly everywhere you go. Besides being a destination and attraction for art aficionados, murals and mosaics celebrate diversity and multiplicity of identities and heighten our consciousness to complex conditions in our social and cultural environments. 

The desire for public arts beneficial role within society was evident during the Great Depression (1930s-1940s) when the United States government introduced the Work Projects Administration (WPA). The majority of the WPA’s focus was to provide jobs for the large percentage of unemployed individuals by initiating ambitious projects that included the construction and expansion of infrastructure and housing. The ambitious program also included the Federal Art Project, which provided financial stability for artists who were commissioned to design and implement public artworks. The idea was that having art in public spaces would increase pride, optimism and civic engagement throughout the population. Besides giving artists a stable income, the Federal Art Project livened up municipal buildings such as hospitals, schools and public spaces. There was also an important educational component to the Federal Art Project that employed artists from the Art Teaching Division in settlement houses and community centers where they taught classes to nearly 50,000 children and adults.

Community-based art projects remain a key element in providing inspiration, motivation and creative collaboration among diverse individuals and groups. One of the longest operating public arts organizations in the United States is in the city of brotherly love and sisterly affection, also known as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia’s rich history as a major hotbed during the 1970-80’s graffiti movement, makes the city an ideal place for collective mural-making, which strengthens inner city relationships and enhances economic opportunities for local communities. Mural Arts Philadelphia was founded by Jane Golden in 1984 with a mission to ignite change through the collaborative production of murals throughout the city. The organization’s work ” is created in service of a larger movement that values equity, fairness and progress across all of society.” Through a wide variety of public art-centered programs, Mural Arts Philadelphia empowers individuals to be agents of change through the cathartic and educational avenues. Major contemporary artists such as Kent Twitchell, Hank Willis Thomas and Meg Saligman, have worked with Mural Arts to create public artworks that address local themes of unity and provoke progressive social, economic and political dialogue. Restorative justice is a major focus of Mural Arts’ creative force. Through a transformative creative process, members of the community, victims of violence and formally incarcerated individuals work together with an “aim to restore and rebuild communities affected by crime, maintain inclusivity and sensitivity for victims and to reduce the current recidivism rate.” The program realizes arts important role as a restorative medium that brings people from all facets of life together to create symbolic meaning, exhibit empathy for one another and take action to make transformative changes (see: Educating Through Art).

Another influential and longstanding community focused arts organization is the Chicago Public Art Group, which was founded in 1971 by a group of artists who desired to incorporate public art with public service by working alongside residents from Chicago’s urban communities. Each public art project that the Chicago Public Art Group takes on is informed through democratic discourse and participation between professionally trained artists and local residents from Chicago’s multicultural neighborhoods. These projects are prominently displayed in public spaces such as on the walls of buildings, highway underpasses, or railway viaducts. Among the organization’s core members is Olivia Gude, an influential and renowned contemporary artist and arts educator. Gude is also a founder of the Spiral Workshop, an experimental art education program, which provides art programs for teens, as well as a research platform for art educators to hone and develop contemporary visual arts curricula. In addition to working with the Chicago Public Art Group and teaching (she is currently a professor of art education at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago), Gude wrote a comprehensive survey on Chicago’s public art scene, which is titled Urban Art Chicago: A Guide to Community Murals, Mosaics and Sculptures. Gude’s book is an in depth resource for the powerful usage of public art as a form of placemaking, social engagement and education.

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Wall of Respect (1967-1971) corner of 43rd Street and Landley Avenue, Chicago, IL.

One of the major sources of inspiration for the city’s public artists like Gude and the Chicago Public Arts Group was the Wall of Respect. The Wall of Respect was a mural painted in 1967 on the side of a building at the corner of 43rd Street and Langley Avenue. The project was organized by the Visual Arts Workshop of the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC) and fourteen visual artists contributed to the mural’s formation. The subjects of the landmark mural were inspirational figures from the African American past, present and contemporary history, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Nat Turner, Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Gwendolyn Brooks, W.E.B. Dubois, Marcus Garvey, Aretha Franklin and Harriet Tubman. The mural’s fate was ultimately sealed in 1971, after a fire damaged the building’s structure and it had to be torn down. However, the mural’s status has been largely cemented into the hearts and minds of Chicago’s citizens, and additional efforts have been taken to create digital resources that make the mural’s imagery accessible to current and future generations. According to Gude, the Wall of Respect largely catalyzed the creation of a community mural movement throughout the city.

Like Philadelphia and Chicago, New York City has developed an impressive past and present narrative in regards to public art. Between 1972 and 1974, visual artist Pedro Silva and architect Phillip Danzig worked in conjunction with the Cityarts Workshop (an organization incorporated in 1971, which is now known as CITYarts, Inc.) to empower local children in the design and implementation of mosaic scenes for a 400 foot bench (titled Rolling Bench) encircling the tomb of Ulysses S. Grant (W. 122nd St & Riverside Dr, New York, NY). Silva and his young collaborators created both fictional and fantastical imagery that symbolically represented their individual and collective personalities.  The juxtaposition of the whimsical bench with Grant’s stark Neoclassical tomb presents a valuable discourse between the past and present in the context of America’s distinctiveness as a melting-pot of cultural identities. Grant was a Civil War General who led the Union Army to victory against the Confederacy. As a result of the war, the enslavement of African-Americans was legally abolished. While the war ended slavery, the fight social justice and Civil Rights for minority citizens such as African Americans and Latinx is still ongoing. Many of the youthful participants who worked on the mosaic with Silva lived in upper Manhattan (and Bronx) neighborhoods predominantly consisting of black and Latinx individuals. This project provided an opportunity for them to become involved in the world around them through realizing their artistic potential and transforming their community.

 

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Marthalicia Matarrita, Black Vultures, 2014, Located at 3627 Broadway, New York, NY, 10031. Photo courtesy of Audubon Mural Project.

A recent and ongoing public art project based in upper Manhattan is the Audubon Mural Project, which utilizes contemporary art to raise awareness of the natural environment, which is often obscured within urban settings. The project, a collaboration between the National Audubon Society and Gitler &_____ Gallery, commissions artists to paint murals of 314 species of North American birds that are threatened by climate change. The location of these murals are within the neighborhood where famed ornithologist, naturalist and painter, John Audubon lived. While New York City has a diverse ecology, it is often overshadowed by towering buildings and covered by concrete pathways. The Audubon Mural Project places vibrant depictions of these vulnerable birds in a manner that is unmistakably visible to all members of the community. Seeing beautiful and uniquely rendered bird species painted on the sides of bodegas and apartment buildings, breaks up the urban aesthetic uniformity. The project embraces arts ability to foster our empathy towards environmental awareness, prompt us to reflect on how we can make a difference by preserving our ecosystem. Marthalicia Matarrita, an artist born and raised in Harlem, New York, painted a mural of the black vulture, a species of scavenger birds that are enduring significant habitat loss. Regarding the social and emotional connection between the species of vultures and the world at large, Matarrita stated:

“I found that this particular bird gets many negative reactions from people. Not many people understand that its natural survival methods are not predatory—they’re scavengers. They are ones that have the leftovers. Every animal has a role to play and the vulture plays an intricate role in the cycle of life. Helps me sympathize to other beings that struggle daily to live.”

Another important New York City based organization is Groundswell, which was founded in 1996 by a contingent of artists, educators and activists. Groundswell fosters artistic collaboration and learning by means of visual literacy, in order to improve relationships and cooperation, as well as inspire activism among youth from neighborhoods throughout the city’s five boroughs. Groundswell’s team of teaching artists work directly with school-age groups on projects that aim to empower their voice and develop pride in order to make transformative changes in their community.

In addition to dedicated public arts organizations working in the urban environment, municipalities are involved with commissioning public art projects for permanent or long-term display within the metropolis. For example, Chicago’s Public Art Collection includes over 500 public artworks exhibited throughout more than 150 municipal facilities across the city (its most iconic work is Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, located in Millennium Park).

In 2017, the city of Chicago produced its first “Year of Public Art” with proposals for new public artworks, a Public Youth Corps, a Public Art Festival, city-wide exhibitions, performances and tours. The city commissioned several major public art projects including a mural conceptualized by Kerry James Marshall, which was funded by Murals of Acceptance. Kerry James Marshall is a contemporary artist that recently transferred his successful studio practice to the street by creating a monumental mural titled Rushmore (2017), which adorns the west side of the Chicago Cultural Center (78 E Washington St, Chicago, IL). Marshall grew up in South Central Los Angeles and now lives and works in Chicago, Illinois. His work is widely exhibited and collected and he is considered among his generation’s most renowned painters. Marshall’s paintings are typically very large, however, the 132-foot-wide, 100-foot-tall Rushmore represents his largest work to date. The mural pays tribute to twenty women from Chicago’s past and present, who have made vital contributions to the city’s cultural scene.

Marshall’s aesthetic composition  resembles the formation of Mount Rushmore, which is a massive stone monument in the Black Hills region of South Dakota, depicting the carved faces presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. In Marshall’s painted version of Rushmore, the faces are carved out of the trunks of gargantuan trees while cardinals carrying white ribbon fly around them. In the background is Chicago’s city skyline with its notable architecture. Overall, this mural offers the public an enlightening perspective that shifts away from the mainstream patriarchal paradigm. In a monumental way, Rushmore addresses the gender gap in the subject matter of public art, where women are not represented as equally or equitably as men in works of public art.

Marshall’s devotion to the city he calls home is a sentiment felt by many other artists such as John T. Biggers, John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres. These artists have contributed public artworks in order to raise the collective consciousness of their local community and celebrate its multicultural identity.

The murals of John T. Biggers address a myriad of issues affecting the lives of black Americans in domestic settings. Biggers was not only a brilliant muralist, as a professor of art education, he taught generations of artists and art educators. His devotion to community engagement and creating works of public art that are symbolic of African American history, was influential in Rick Lowe’s development of Project Row Houses in Houston (See: Want to Make Art and Education Great? Start with Community). Biggers’ public artwork are a response to racism, patriarchal structures and social inequality. They represent uplifting domestic and spiritual scenes, inspired by symbolism from African myths and legends. Realizing the importance and the need to portray women more prominently in society, his murals often feature seminal African American women such as The Contribution of Negro Women to American Life and Education (1952), which depicts vignettes of Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Phillis Wheatley. The painting envelops the wall of a room at the Blue Triangle Multi-Cultural Association‘s headquarters in Third Ward, a historic and culturally rich African-American community in the southeast Houston management district.

Another iconic Houston mural by Biggers’ is History of the International Longshoreman’s Local 872. Biggers painted this massive mural in 1957 to celebrate the labor contributions by African American longshoremen working on Houston’s docks and ports. It was initially dedicated to the International Longshoreman’s Local 872, a predominantly black worker’s union.  For years it covered a wall within their union hall, until black and white unions were integrated. The painting is currently displayed on a wall in the second-floor auditorium of the ILA Local 24‘s headquarters. It is an awe-inspiring testament to the endurance and pride of black local laborers.

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John T. Biggers, History of the International Longshoreman’s Local 872, 1957, casein on Masonite panels, 48 x 288 inches.

Collectively, Biggers’ Houston murals, which he painted in historically black neighborhoods, make up an important part of Houston’s multicultural fabric. They express and symbolize the spirit, strength, compassion and ingenuity that African American groups and individuals had in shaping the American landscape.

John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres have devoted the majority of their artistic careers to representing the South Bronx community in a personal and unique manner. After meeting at Fashion Moda, an influential community center and art gallery in the South Bronx, Ahearn and Torres collaborated throughout the 1980 and 90s and occasionally still work together, although Torres relocated to Florida.

Ahearn and Torres frequently worked outside of their studio on the sidewalk where they interacted with passersby and invited members of the neighborhood to pose for their relief sculptures, which were created using a lifecasting process. Ahearn and Torres made two copies of each cast and gave one of the sculptures to the sitter. The duo also created large scale murals, which are affixed to the facade of neighborhood tenement houses, which makes them an integral part of the community’s landscape. These murals, made between 1981 and 1985 are: We Are A Family (Layman, Victor and Ernest, Kate, Towana and Staice, Felix and Iris and Smokey) located at 877 Intervale Avenue; Life on Dawson Street (Thomas, Barbara, Pedro with Tire and Pat and Lelena at Play) located on Dawson Street at Longwood Avenue, Bronx, NY; Homage to the People of the Bronx: Double Dutch at Kelly Street I (Frieda, Javette, Towana and Stancey) located on Intervale Avenue at Kelly Street, Bronx, NY; and Back to School (Maggie and Connie, Kido and Ralph, Jay with bike, Titi in Window) located on Walton Avenue at 170th Street, Bronx, NY.

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John Ahearn, Ismael Ismael (Tire Shop)  2017
epoxy enamel on fiberglass
(L) and Monxo BX  2017, acrylic on plaster (R)

In 2017, Ahearn teamed up with a local South Bronx business and a local college professor to create two relief sculptures that are installed on the facade of the Marwa Tire Shop (250 E. 139th St., Bronx, NY). The figure on the left is a local mechanic named Ismael. Ismael works at the tire shop that his likeness presides over. He holds an impact wrench for changing tires and wears a yellow Superdry t-shirt. To Ismael’s right is a relief of Monxo Lopez, a Puerto Rican born professor who resides in the Bronx and teaches Latinx culture at Hunter College. The two sculptures are part of a dialogue about the unique and diverse nature of the neighborhood, which is mix of small businesses, industry, residential housing and academic institutions. Through the subjects he has depicted, Ahearn’s public artworks highlight the importance of keeping local businesses thriving and honoring the essence of the neighborhood’s diverse residents.

In the educational sphere, murals are a popular school placemaking project across the country because of their overarching benefits such as expressing unifying messages, diversity of identity and pride. Planning murals involves organizing students and faculty in a democratic decision making process, which eliminates the banking model of education in favor of problem-posing pedagogy. Mural making embraces studio habits of mind such as making connections, creating meaning, taking action and assessing/reflecting. The initial discussions, research and delineation of teamwork is as equally important as the final product. The fruits of the creative and collaborative labor are generally exhibited in a highly visible location in order to engage the school community, creating a public display to rally around (see Andrea Mastrovito’s Kickstarting project: Collaborating with Kids: Problem-posing Models for Profound Works of Art). Murals might also inspire further inquiry and activism into important themes and issues that affect student’s lives both in school and in their neighborhoods. Overall, public art in schools is elementary, my dear readers!

Do you have experiences creating murals or public art within a particular community? Are you an educator that has collaborated with your students on the creation of a mural? I’d love to hear about it so please comment below or send me an email.  


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Capps, Kriston, “The Gender Gap in Public Sculpture.” 24 Feb. 2016. CityLab. https://www.citylab.com/design/2016/02/the-gender-gap-in-public-sculpture/463170/

Chan, Yuki. “5 Ways School Wall Graphics Build Community and School Pride.” 27 Oct. 2016. RainMaker Blog. https://www.rainmakersigns.com/blog/5-ways-school-wall-graphics-network-with-students-and-stimulate-morale

Cohen, Michele. 2009. Public Art for Public Schools. New York: Monacelli Press.

Goodyear, Sarah. “Can Murals Change a Neighborhood?” 2 Jul. 2014. CityLab. https://www.citylab.com/design/2014/07/can-murals-change-a-neighborhood/373831/

Gude, Olivia (2000). Urban Art Chicago: A Guide to Community Murals, Mosaics, and Sculptures. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee.

Kennedy, Roger G.; Larkin, David (2009). When Art Worked: The New Deal, Art, and Democracy.  New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.

Miss Rosen. “A Portrait of love, life, and community in the South Bronx.” 30 jul. 2018. huck. https://www.huckmag.com/art-and-culture/art-2/a-portrait-of-love-life-and-community-in-the-south-bronx/

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