Thursday, November 5, 2015

Interview on Kansas City public radio

I was a guest on KCUR's program Central Standard along with Hector Casanova and Amber Hansen to discuss murals and the upcoming documentary "Called to Walls." You can listen to the interview here.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Cordley mural gets new paint, tells old story

by Rochelle Valverde
originally published in the Lawrence Journal-World
October 20, 2015

History tends to grow dimmer with time, but one story from Lawrence’s past was literally fading with the years. The mural on the exterior wall of Cordley Elementary School, which depicts a story involving the school’s namesake and a runaway slave known as Lizzie, had weathered in the nearly 15 years since it was painted. A recently completed addition and renovation of the 100-year-old school, located at 1837 Vermont St., did not forget the mural on the north facade. Despite an addition to the school’s northeast side that intersects with the mural, the wall was left intact and funds were allocated to completely restore the mural, said Lawrence artist Dave Loewenstein.

“Principal (Scott) Cinnamon was really insistent that the mural be a part of the new school, and you can see they worked around it,” Loewenstein said as he added fresh paint to the mural this week.
The mural depicts a story from Lawrence’s Underground Railroad, represented by the railroad tracks that run across the bottom, Loewenstein said. It tells of the time Richard Cordley, a Massachusetts abolitionist who was new to Lawrence in 1859, was asked to harbor a runaway slave named Lizzie. Cordley’s house — located on Vermont Street about two blocks from the school — was thought to be a safer option for Lizzie because authorities may check other homes first.

Lawrence muralist Dave Loewenstein tosses a paint brush in a bucket as he repaints his mural, "A Thousand Miles Away," on the north side of Cordley Elementary School, Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015. The mural depicts an Underground Railroad scene involving a slave named Lizzie and Lawrence abolitionists Rev. Richard Cordley (not pictured) and his wife Mary. Loewenstein will be glazing the mural on Wednesday as the last step before it is completed. by Nick Krug

The circumstances inspired a quote attributed to Cordley in 1859, on the topic of putting one’s theoretical beliefs into action: “It is easy to be brave a thousand miles away. But now I must face the question at short range.” The mural, titled “A Thousand Miles Away,” shows Lizzie’s concealment at the Cordleys’ house and eventual safe escape to Canada. The idea that even heroes get scared is a great lesson for kids, Loewenstein said. “We love that quote because it says so much about the challenges, fear and responsibility of engaging in work like this — for social justice,” he said.

Loewenstein originally painted the mural in 2001 after compiling sketches of the story that Cordley students made at the time. He has spent about two weeks restoring the mural with the help of another Lawrence artist, Nicholas Ward. The restoration was originally planned for the summer, but Loewenstein said he’s glad that in the end he’s working on it while school is in session. “It’s really been better to have students around,” he said. “They ask a million questions.”

Loewenstein said the kids know him and the story really well now, and he’ll hear them discussing it among themselves on the blacktop. The kids have even gone as far as to offer him tips or critiques as he’s painting, Loewenstein said. In addition to the story itself, it’s good for the students to see the process. “I think it’s really cool for kids to see artists at work,” he said. “We see actors perform and musicians play, but we don’t often see visual artists at work.” The repainting of the mural is almost done, and Loewenstein said he plans to add the final varnish to complete the project on Wednesday.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Found jumprope drawings

While restoring the 2001 mural "A Thousand Miles Away" at Cordley Elementary School, I stumbled upon a jumprope left on the playground blacktop. Walking around it, revealed these accidental drawings.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Editorial: Painting a better future

from the Topeka Capital-Journal
September 20, 2015

Topeka has a fair amount of murals, some planned and authorized and some that seemingly pop up overnight, the work of spray-paint artists. The community has a new mural of the authorized variety, one many residents won’t get to see except in pictures. It is worth noting here though, not so much for the painting itself, which is beautiful, but because of how it came about and what it means to those who created it.

Shawnee County’s Department of Corrections unveiled the mural and a garden at its Juvenile Detention Center on Wednesday. Corrections director Brian Cole said studies have shown gardening and arts programs to be positive experiences in helping troubled youth with self-esteem, teamwork, problem solving and communication skills. Cole said he had been aware for some time of similar projects but wanted to research the subject before embarking on one. He and his team are to be commended for their willingness to go beyond incarceration with the bare necessities and find ways to ensure the troubled youth in their temporary care leave the detention center with skills and knowledge they didn’t possess upon entering.

If they are successful with just a few youngsters (although we’re sure the have a higher goal), they will provide a valuable service to the community. Many people who slide into a life of mischief, crime and incarceration begin that journey as juveniles. Efforts to change a person’s behavior at that gateway can be beneficial to the youths involved and society.

The mural was designed by artist Dave Loewenstein, of Lawrence, who has worked on the Great Mural Wall of Topeka at 20th and S.W. Western, and four young people at the detention center. Loewenstein projected the design, which incorporates birds and flowers, on the building’s walls and his young accomplices began painting in May. The finished product, “The Caged Bird Sings, I am More That Just a Weed,” spans two walls.

About 30 juveniles began work in the spring on a nearby garden, in which they raise tomatoes, kale and cabbage. Staff members built the plant beds and Washburn Tech donated some plants. Cole said the work instilled a sense of pride in the participating youngsters, who built a beautiful place that can be utilized. Topekans should take some sense of pride in a juvenile center where the staff cares enough to go beyond simple incarceration.

Members of The Capital-Journal Editorial Advisory Board are Gregg Ireland, Mike Hall, Fred Johnson, Ray Beers Jr., Garry Cushinberry, John Stauffer, Frank Ybarra, Jessica Hosman and Laura Burton.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Synchronicity and the Comet

The spring of 1997.
I was thirty.
I had just signed up for my first email account.
And people all around town were looking up into the twilight sky to see Hale-Bopp, the comet.

I was skeptical about the comet. In the past, I’d looked for Halley’s and I’d strained my eyes to see Swift-Tuttle with no luck. Friends and the host on NPR’s Star Date said this was different – you could really see this one. I still had doubts as I stepped out on my little front porch in North Lawrence and looked up into the southwest sky. No kidding. They were right. There it was, a fuzzy illuminated arrow pointing west toward the horizon.

After five years of minimum wage jobs post grad school, which included lithography slicker, framer, produce manager and bread mixer, I was desperate for a change or at least a sign to nudge me in a new direction. And so not finding other compelling guidance, I took the totally predictable passing of the comet as mine. Move on, it said, and I listened. I left my job as the mixer at the new bakery in town called Wheatfields and took a leap into the role of self-supporting full-time artist.

One of the first gigs I applied for, as a newly unemployed full-time artist, was the City’s % for art project at the East Lawrence Recreation Center – the first that planned to integrate art into the design of the building.

East Lawrence Recreation Center entryway

Inspired by the work of the Chicago Public Art Group at Navy Pier, ceramic artist Amy Carlson and I collaborated on a proposal that called for sculptural benches embellished with glass and ceramic tile in the plaza at the entryway to the center. It was a long shot, I thought. Neither of us had done mosaic on that scale before let alone create the kind of massive concrete sculpture that it would be adhered to. We would need a lot of help.

That was eighteen years ago.

Long story short, we got the job and the help, especially from East Heights, New York and Central Middle school students. The occasion for this retelling is that along with the original mason, Greg Frost, I just finished restoring the benches, which led me to thinking about the ways artists’ relationships to their work and the audiences they reach change over time.

Artists who make permanent or semi-permanent public work enter into a relationship with the places their work is situated - we learn the place's stories, meet the neighbors and are connected to the forces that shape them for better or worse.  And in the same way we maintain our homes, gardens, and neighborhoods, artists who choose to work in public are implicated in the care and upkeep of what they create. When we neglect what we have made, we are neglecting the place and people too. Public artists are also part of a long-term dialogue (whether we acknowledge it or not) with the stories and perceptions that work inspires over time. What was absolutely sparkling new to me when it was created on my drawing table eighteen years ago is now a visual landmark, woven into the narrative of East Lawrence for kids (now adults) who grew up with the work and never knew it not to exist.

Original color study for "Synchronicity," 1997

I know this especially well these days as I have been restoring some of the murals I made 15-20 years ago (I’ll be working on the Cordley Elementary School mural this month), and have been fascinated to hear what they have meant to people over the years. Listening to their stories has reaffirmed for me how art can have a deep and meaningful influence on the way we know a place, especially when the work is made with as opposed to just for a community.

Revisiting an artwork you made a long time ago can be humbling, especially when it’s in public. All your mistakes and inadequacies are there for everyone to see. It also can be a kind of reunion with who you were as an artist (and a person) at a certain point in time. Returning to the mosaic benches was a mixture of both for me. I wish I had used darker grout, while at the same time I recalled what a precarious position I was in back then with money and work, and what a risk I had taken giving up that $6.50/hour job at the bakery.

The Center’s mosaics had gotten beaten up a bit during the first year after Amy and I finished them. It was due to a combination of kids desire for the vitreous glass tiles that looked like candy and a few skateboarders. The damage wasn’t extensive but it was visible and troubled staff at the center. The tops of the benches were damaged the most. The solution was to fill in the tops with black concrete (an unfortunate sacrifice of some beautiful tile work) and then replace all of the tiles missing from the the sides of the benches. After some cajoling, the Lawrence Cultural Arts Commission agreed to help fund the repairs and Greg and I went to work.

Dave in 1997

Dave in 2015
Greg in 1997

Greg in 2015

Working these last few weeks on the restoration reminded me of what an active place the center is, and how it's ruled by kids, some of them the kids of the kids who hung out there in 1997.  It also brought back recollections of the spring of ’97 and Hale-Bopp. Back then I knew I didn’t want to forget it. So to mark the time, I did what humans have done for millennia – I painted (or in this case tiled) it on a wall. Go and look for yourself. In the middle of the bench between the moon and the outstretched hand of a worker holding a level you’ll see it, a small fuzzy arrow pointing the way.

Restored 2015

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Lower 9th Ward Village - update

The Lower 9th Ward Village
In 2010, I visited the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans to collaborate on a small mural project with residents working to reconnect neighbors displaced after Katrina. The"Where's Your Neighbor" project was the idea of the Lower 9th Ward Village's beloved leader Mack McClendon. The Village and Mack were known as the "beating heart" of the Lower 9th after the storm, and even though the center eventually had to close, it's influence on the neighborhood continues. Mack passed away earlier this year at 61.  Below is my original post from 2010 that describes our project.

Mack working with the mural team
This past May, while I was working in Tonkawa, Oklahoma, I took a few days off to attend the Community Built Association's 20th Anniversary Conference in New Orleans. Cruising down U.S. 271, my car was loaded with paint, brushes and drawing materials because, as a part of the conference, I was going to lead a mural workshop at the Lower 9th Ward Village - a small community center that emerged after Katrina to bring neighbors together and help with basic needs. The driving force behind the Village is Mack McClendon who has made it his mission to reconnect Lower 9th Ward residents with relatives and friends who left during the storm. To help in this effort, Mack wanted us artists to work with local folks to create a map that symbolized the Katrina diaspora, or in Mack’s words “Where’s your neighbor?”

At the back of the Village’s warehouse, which was being set-up for a fundraising auction, ten people gathered around a make-shift table to brainstorm. The idea was to create a visually captivating map that would remind people that many neighborhood residents, for different reasons, were still not home. Some died. Some fled the storm, found new homes and did not intend to move back. Some wanted to come back but didn't have the resources. And others had returned to the area but could not reoccupy their homes in the Lower 9th.

Making a map of the U.S. would be easy enough and we had a pretty good idea of how people spread out after the storm, but the mural team wanted to embellish the artwork with more than just the facts. We scrounged around the warehouse and nearby alleyways for materials and inspiration.

Mack brought us a coil of telephone wire. Someone else found an old doorknob. Perfect. The doorknob, emblazoned with a Fleur-de-lis, was attached to the mural and became New Orleans. The telephone wire, after we stripped it down and divided its many intertwined colors, was tied from the door knob out towards cities where people took refuge, each color indicating a different predicament or intention - red for not coming home, yellow for wanting to come home, green for back in their home, and black for back in New Orleans but unable to to reoccupy their house. Five hours of painting and wire stretching later and the mural-map was finished and ready to be installed in front of the community center. But how would the greater neighborhood (people who didn’t frequent the Village) know about this effort?

Somehow we had to spread this small painting out into the streets where more people could see it. The next day, and my last on this visit, we used scraps of plywood and old roofing to reproduce details of the larger map.

When they were dry, our crew scattered out onto the nearby streets and hung, wired, and placed the panels on fences, old street signs, and abandoned buildings. Hopefully, they would be curious enough to catch people's attention and lead them to the Village.

Someone drove by and asked what we were doing and, after they heard our story, asked if they could have one of the paintings for their house. We followed him down the street to his house where this small portion of a map of the Katrina diaspora was hung carefully and with pride on the wall of the front porch. Other neighbors inquired about the brightly colored paintings, and within an hour or so all twenty small panels had found homes.

This little mural/map (and its satellites) of “Where’s Your Neighbor?” was just a beginning I told Mack. A lot more could be done, and now it appears it will be. Just the other day someone sent me this article. It looks like the New Orleans artist group NoLA Rising is proposing a giant mural with a reproduction of our little mural/map as its centerpiece.

Mack McClendon

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

New story about the Great Mural Wall of Topeka

Click on the photo to read the story about the latest mural at the Great Mural Wall of Topeka.