Thursday, July 21, 2016

The heartbreaking story of the Cowalligator


In the summer of 2001, there was a new fad making its way across the Atlantic. No, not Harry Potter or Emo, this craze was being driven from east to west, from cow town to cow town, bringing artists and pun makers together to populate our cities with a hot new brand of public art. What began in Zurich, Switzerland in 1998, arrived in Chicago and then New York, and finally our cow town was next – The CowParade was coming to Kansas City!


 
Artists of all stripes were roped in. I struggled to getaway, but it was no use. I was nearly broke. Selected artists would each get $1,000. My resistance weakened. Nevertheless, I felt if I was going to participate, I needed a way to approach decorating a fiberglass cow where I wasn’t completely being taken in like a lemming. So, when I applied, I submitted a design that gently satirized the whole enterprise. I was pretty sure it would be rejected.

My idea was a version of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, except in this case the wolf would be an alligator and the sheep’s clothing would be a cheaply made cow disguise. At the time I was just developing a habit of layering maybe one too many metaphors on top of each other, so with the cow I felt one level of symbolism was not enough. I added the Jonah and the whale story. Jonah was played by an artist (me) who had been lured in by the cowporate CowParade only to be consumed whole (by the alligator in cow disguise) and sentenced to live within the belly of the beast. I called it the Cowalligator.

I even came up with a definition for what I imagined could be a new word.
Cowalligator - noun: A person (animal or entity) who does a poor job of masking their bad intentions.

 
To my surprise, the design was accepted (along with a number of other Lawrence artists), which meant I actually had to paint the heifer. In a vast warehouse in the West Bottoms of KC, my friend Greg and I picked up the great white bubble wrapped whale-cow, and I imagined that all over the KC metro heads were turning to see stiff white utters and legs emerging from the backs of pick-up trucks and strapped to the tops of station wagons. 



Painting the bovine became a group effort. Lots of passersby stopped by to help, and I even began to enjoy it.  A photo at the time shows the wide range of projects I was working on including a mosaic for a restaurant in Iowa and stencil installation for a show at the Bourgeois Pig. I can't quite recall what the "Frogs for Dave" sign was about.

The freshly painted cows were installed throughout the KC metro in herds. The Cowalligator was part of small herd in Shawnee-Mission Park. Kansas Citians were mad about the CowParade, and it turned out, a few got really mad at the cow parade. Some artists protested that it wasn’t art. The Municipal Arts Commission of Kansas City even voted to kill the entire exhibition, but the city went forward with it.



It was fun to go cow exploring (maybe a little like the current Pokémon Go mania). I went with friends to the park, and to see other cows on the Plaza and downtown. One hot summer day, I took an old friend to check out the Cowalligator only to discover that...it was gone. Lost. Vanished. The concrete base and small plaque were all that was left. We looked around. The rest of the herd was there. The Cowalligator was the only one missing.

Was it theft? A few had been stolen in other cities. Had it been vandalized? This was more common, and damaged cows were removed for repairs. I called the CowParade home office to report a runaway. “Mr. Loewenstein, we thought you knew. Your cow is fine. It’s at Sandstone tonight….for the Tom Petty concert.” They went on, “We’re getting the band to sign your cow. Other cows are being signed by pop stars, pro-athletes and celebrities, you know, to help increase their value for the upcoming auction. She’ll be returned to the park next week.”

I mean, I guess if the Cowalligator was going to be abducted for a celebrity, it couldn’t have been better one. But I wondered if there was a reason Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were signing mine and not someone else’s. Did they choose it? Was there something about the wolf in sheep’s clothing theme? Maybe it was the alligator, since Petty is from Florida. Those mysteries remain unsolved, but the most important question was answered – did they really autograph it?

  
A couple of weeks before the big auction, I went back to the park to investigate. As promised, there she was up on the hill, and as I got closer I could tell there were...signatures! Petty and guitarist Mike Campbell on the forehead, the other bandmates on the utters. 


That was the last I ever saw of her. Later that October, the Cowalligator was auctioned off, although to who I never discovered.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Construtores de Pontes dos Sonhos - Builders of Dream Bridges

Água Branca. It sounds like a New Mexico spa or a white water rafting outfitter along the Colorado River, but here in São Paulo it’s a comunidade hidden behind a trucking company and packed in between the Marginal Highway and the polluted Rio Teite. It’s a community of 3,000 people you wouldn’t run into unless you were looking for it. And, it was the site of my final project in Brazil this spring. I was invited by Parede Viva and the Revivarte project to add to the series of murals they had been making with local residents. On my first day, I was escorted in a U.S. Consulate SUV across a tiny portion of this city of nearly 20 million. The graffiti artist, and my counterpart/interpreter, Kaleb met me there. 


After brief introductions, a group of us, Fel, Kaleb, Joyce from the Consulate and Ana who runs a neighborhood salon, took a walk around. As we wove our way down narrow alleys and in between buildings in different states of construction, Ana told us about neighborhood struggles (gentrification, drugs, poverty) and triumphs (Revivarte, a new playground, improved housing). All around us there was wildly inventive painting on walls, vehicles, trashcans and light poles.

We walked along the edge of the comunidade, bordered by a narrow creek lined with banana trees and shacks perched perilously over the water. At one end there was a small bridge (ponte) over the creek.  It led to the heavily gated backside of a big box store like Home Depot, but clearly wasn’t accessible to Água Branca folks. 


The site for our mural was at the main intersection entering the comunidade on the brightly colored walls of their pre-school. Just inside, giant angry paper mache mosquitos hung from the rafters. They were warnings about Dengue, much more prevalent there than Zika. Next door was a scrap yard where catadores brought their carts (carocas) full of gleaned metal, plastic and wood to sell for a few reales.  Parede Viva artist Mundano has been leading a project called “Pimp my Caroca” that supports these and other São Paulo catadores by painting their carts and helping to share their stories.

Pontes (bridges)
The next day Kaleb picked me up. Negotiating morning traffic, he thought out loud saying that we (artists) act as a kind of bridge when we come to work with comunidades like Água Branca. I wondered, if we bridges flow in both directions or just one. And what do we span? From where to what? Is there a toll? And what’s underneath?

In a small casita at the back of the school we gathered for the first time. Our team was made up from local kids who joined us after school (they only go half-days), Kaleb, plus two teachers Ana Carla and Ana Karla. There was a good mix of girls and boys and a range of ages from about 7 to 17. We went around and introduced ourselves (with Kaleb’s animated translation) and said our favorite color. I wrote them down and asked which of these colors should we use in the mural? “All of them!” they demanded. I agreed.



I had planned on showing some images of my murals but we couldn’t get the projector to work, so instead I asked the team about that tiny bridge down the street. What does it connect to? Who uses it? What goes under? They wanted to show me, so we walked over, and immediately the kids started playing on under and atop the bridge. One pirouetted along its spine like a gymnast, others nestled inside its rounded openings becoming new pillars holding it up. We looked at the creek in both directions, first towards the comunidade (relatively clean and healthy) and then the opposite direction past the scrap yard toward the highway (trashed). I asked if there were animals or fish. “Sim, sim” even turtles they say. And looking up we saw in the distance a lone white egret perched motionless in the water awaiting a meal.


It was just a brief adventure, but it completely changed the vibe. By shifting our perspective, by asking a few basic questions, questions that because they were asked implied that they were worth answering, we started to see that bridge in a new way - from overlooked and common to a unique and identifying characteristic of the comunidade. Bridges (or the lack of them) both literal and symbolic were ever present. There are many essential places you simply cannot get to without a car. And the bridge out of poverty is still more of a dream than reality for many in Água Branca.

For a few years now, a quote from James Baldwin’s essay “The Creative Process,” has followed me around. “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers.” And it occurred to me again here in Água Branca, if the bridge was an answer, what were the questions?

Back in our casita studio I proposed, if you could build a bridge, what would it connect? Who would it be for? What would it look like? They charged ahead, drawing in teams of two, first pencil and then color. We took a break for almoco (lunch) of little empanadas and soda. After, we presented our bridge (ponte) designs to each other.




(In the news, a vote was imminent in the House on whether they would proceed with an impeachment trial of the President. My new friends were wary. They feared that many people did not understand the implications and motivations behind this push. Like in Kansas where so many vote against their own self-interest out of fear and ideological pressure.)

These short projects mean that we only have a day or so of drawing before a design needs to be composed – that was my homework for when I got back to the hotel.


Our mural design is of a vision in the making. We see the hands of artists creating it. In the center, the Água Branca bridge is reinforced by the kids who sit within it, while their aspirations occupy the space above. Flowing underneath is a mixed message – the creek is populated by turtles, fish and…trash. The adjoining wall is a blueprint for the future, composed of all of their bridges interconnected, allowing everyone access across the city.

The next day we made quick work of squaring –up the design with a chalk snapline (the simple builder’s tool was a revelation to many). And then it was time to paint, but we had to wait… for the Consul General, Ricardo Zuniga. Following protocol, he would be the first to paint. We had met earlier in the week when I was invited to join his family at a new exhibition of Tim Burton drawings.  At the show, me and the Consul General, who had a major hand in opening relations with Cuba recently, discussed our favorite Burton films and agreed Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice were the best, while the recent remakes of Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were overblown disappointments. 

Painting went quickly. The early fall weather cooperated, storming dramatically at night. People on the street parked their chairs on the sidewalk to watch the progress. My Portuguese was still terrible, but I knew the important colors – vermelho, laranja, azul and a few directional words like up, down, more and less. The rest was communicated by example and culturally appropriate hand gestures (I learned they weren’t all the same as in the U.S.)

The Consul General and mural team in action.




http://globoplay.globo.com/v/4937683/

The day before we finished, the media giant Globo TV (the same Globo that had been fanning the flames of impeachment) came to do a feature about our project. We were prepared. We had talked about how to share our story. It aired the next day. We watched and cheered when the deep voiced news anchor intoned Água Branca with a gravitas rarely heard, and then, just like that, it was time to say goodbye.

"Construtores de Pontes dos Sonhos - Builders of Dream Bridges"
We finished the last details, and then I quickly washed the brushes before our dedication ceremony. To each of the painters, I handed one and said, “This is a symbol of our work, but it still has life in it. You can choose to use it by yourself and do a little, or you can work with your friends and do a lot.”

"Construtores de Pontes dos Sonhos - Builders of Dream Bridges"



After cake and sodas and many cheers of Parabens!, we jumped into a VW van and headed to the movies to see Superman vs. Batman. It was dubbed in Portuguese - probably all the better for me. During the movie, the design team was rambunctious and excited, waving their paint brushes in the air at the climax of each battle between superheroes.

Coda
A few weeks after getting back to Kansas, I received a fantastic surprise in my email. The crew from Água Branca, along with Kaleb, had muralized the bridge - a small but significant gesture, completing an idea and reinforcing the notion that art is not disconnected from life. 

(And since my return, President Rousseff has been relieved of her position while the congress proceeds with an impeachment trial. The interim president, Temer, quickly reformed his cabinet to include only white men and shut down the Ministry of Culture, which was only reinstated after massive protests.)

I am grateful to all of the folks from Água Branca who welcomed me and gave their time for our project. Also, muito obrigado to the Meridian International Center, the U.S. Consulate in São Paulo, Parede Viva, Revivarte, filmmaker Adriano Choque and my friend Kaleb.

Friday, May 27, 2016

A lost language

This morning I found these messages written on the sidewalk in front of my apartment. They come from the pecan tree nearby. What do they say? Are they in a lost language?








Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Emporia Mural Project


“No tengo miedo del mañana, porque he visto el ayer y amo el hoy.”

This Spanish translation of a quote by Emporia hero William Allen White became the guiding inspiration for a small mural project I led with Emporia State and local high school students earlier in April.

  
In English it reads, “I am not afraid of tomorrow, for I have seen yesterday and I love today.” With a natural inclination to remembering the future, I was captivated by the time bending nature of this vision. White was also the writer I quoted as the preface to a talk I gave at the University last year - “If our colleges and universities do not breed men (and women) who riot, who rebel, who attack life with all the youthful vim and vigor, then there is something wrong with our colleges. The more riots that come on college campuses, the better world for tomorrow.” Encouraging the student body to riot (creatively) via the words of the town’s undisputed hero. Yes.

The mural project was coordinated by Assistant Professor of Ceramics, Stephanie Lanter, who along with our design team explored lesser known aspects of the community that is best known these days for the Dirty Kanza bike race, the Flint Hills and the Glass Blown Open disc golf championship. We researched the origin of one of Emporia’s most beloved parks, named Peter Pan in memory of William Allen White’s daughter Mary, and Maud Wagner, the first widely acknowledged female tattoo artist in the U.S. We also talked a lot about downtown’s efforts at revitalization, and a perceived division (marked by the railroad tracks) between Emporia’s white and Hispanic communities. 

Maud Wagner
The wall was situated, conveniently, in the Mulready’s Pub beer garden. Proprietor Rick Becker, a generous supporter of the arts, was also one of our most committed painters.

This project has already helped spur two new mural projects in Emporia that will take place this summer, one with Painting Professor Derek Wilkinson’s class at the local police station and another led by our mural apprentice Itzel Lopez for the Emporia State Library.

Thanks to everyone at Emporia State, Mulready’s and the community of Emporia for supporting the project and helping create the mural. And a special debt of gratitude goes out to mural apprentice Itzel Lopez and assistant Nicholas Ward.

Itzel, Rick, Stephanie, Dave and Nicholas

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Video from the Água Branca mural project in São Paulo, Brazil


Thanks to filmmaker Adriano Choque and the comunidade of Água Branca.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Revivarte in São Paulo

I grew up in Chicago, a relatively big city, but it is more than five times smaller than where I just returned from. São Paulo is not only the biggest city in Brazil, it’s the biggest city in the entire southern hemisphere, and it was the last stop on my month long adventure leading mural projects with the support of the U.S. State Department and The Meridian International Center.  I came from Rio, which is often compared to São Paulo, using U.S. cities as measures, with Rio being like the Miami/LA of Brazil (fun and sun), and São Paulo the New York (all business). 

  
São Paulo is also known internationally as a leader in street art, from the ever expanding tendrils of pixação that tattoo the facades of most buildings, to the world class outdoor galleries of beautiful, comical and at times pointed graffiti that adorn highways, bridges and neighborhoods by artists like Nunca, Mag Magrela and Paulo Ito. But unlike most metropolises, street artists, pixadores and muralists don’t have to compete with advertisers for space, because in the city of São Paulo … billboards are completely banned!

Pixação above tags

No more billboards
After getting a quick security briefing from Cultural Affairs Specialist Joyce Costa and her colleagues at the U.S. Consulate (use big city sense, dengue is worse then zika here), we were off to meet folks at Parede Viva (Living Wall), a muito legal arts organization that would be my partner for the mural project I’d be leading in the comunidade of Água Branca. In their animated, art-filled space, I met Mundano, Fel, Daniela, Kaleb and filmmaker Adriano Choque

Parede Viva
In the past few years, they had initiated a fantastic project called Revivarte in two comunidades, Parque do Gato and Água Branca. In that short time, they had painted a dozen giant murals on the facades of buildings throughout the neighborhoods, done workshops with local kids and started a new campaign to address community concerns. “Our goal is clear: We want social transformation through art,” says Fel. “Graffiti is the armed wing of hip-hop — armed with paints and ideas. And when an idea is expressed through art, it is much more effective. We attack the eye, the vision.”
 
Part of the Revivarte project in Água Branca

Fel
This was a revelation for me. For so long I had been used to working in places where there were few if any murals, and the ones that did exist were rarely there to create “Social transformation.” To be in an environment where the culture already supported this kind of work was inspiring. Walking around Água Branca with Fel, Mundano and Kaleb, I got to see many of these remarkable murals. The abundance of paintings on the walls made me wonder if the impact and understanding of murals and graffiti is different than what I’m used to in the U. S.  In Brazil, spraypaint is everywhere (unlike Chicago where spraypaint has been banned within city limits). What could I possibly add to this thriving people’s art gallery?

Água Branca
Later, during a panel discussion I was on with the artist Alexandre Keto, at a cultural space behind a eye glasses shop, someone in the audience asked, “But isn’t most of this street art here really just for tourists?” It is a good question, and one that I’ve been thinking about for awhile. Back in the U.S. in places like Bushwick (New York) and Wynood (Miami) street art is being used to speed and smooth the process of gentrification. In Brazil, there are certainly areas that have been created and maintained to attract tourists, but there are also tons of other public paintings – many with social and political themes. The community-based landscape designer Steve Rasmussen Cancian once advised me, “It’s not if you paint a mural, but what the content is.” “If you’re being asked to do something that’s just decorative, meant to enhance curb appeal and doesn’t relate to the place or engage the people who live there, you should think twice, but if you are working with local people on a project that supports them and doesn’t shy away from the realities of gentrification and social equity you’re probably okay.”

Check out my last blog post from Brazil, the Água Branca project, coming soon…