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

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…

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The everyday Olympics of Rio de Janeiro

In a picture postcard
How would the dream of Rio compare to actually being there, especially at this moment of political instability and anticipation around the upcoming Olympics? My first impression matched if not exceeded my expectations - the awe inspiring beauty of how human settlement is tucked in between those lush green mountains that appear like teeth sprouting from the maw of a sun bathing dragon.

Looking down at Copacabana Beach from the top of Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain)

I found myself within a picture postcard staying just a block from Copacabana Beach, but like those tourist trinkets my first impression hid the fuller picture of the city, including the wide gulf between rich and poor.

In my room, I checked the news. The political tension in Brasil was growing with more accusations against the President and threats that parties supporting her would leave making impeachment more possible. I also learned more about the other side – those who believe the drive to impeachment because of corruption (which is real among all parties) is an attempt at a kind of coup. Supporters of the PT party are concerned that this growing movement to depose the President could take with it many social programs for low-income people. On the streets, I could see protesters in red (pro-government) and others in yellow and green (pro-impeachment). The intensity of the divide reminded me of home.

Thinking about the Olympics and Paralympics
The Rio project had been hard to pin down. With only two days to work, it was tough to figure out what was possible. At first I thought a quick stencil mural, but then the wall we were going to paint fell through. Then after skyping with Lorenzo and Daniela at Oi Kabum! (the youth arts-based organization funded by a giant telecommunications company I would be partnering with) we settled on painting two portable panels on a theme that revolved around the Olympics and Paralympics.

We talked about giving the participants and opportunity to explore how the games would impact the city and the lives of regular folks in Rio like themselves. In addition to the excitement and hoopla around the games, there were also widely reported concerns including pollution of Guanabara Bay (where a sailing event was scheduled) and the threat of the Zika virus.

Two days, one to design and one to paint. No room for mistakes or rain, since we planned to paint in a public square near Oi Kabum!

On Wednesday I arrived at Oi Kabum!, a clean and professional looking space with teen artists bustling around. I met my counterparts Lorenzo and Daniela – they reminded me of impassioned art teachers in lots of places I’ve worked with maybe a slightly more political consciousness.  Many of Oi Kabum’s projects address issues of race, gender and economic inequality, as those are the things on the minds of many of the students. It has a great vibe, multiple studios most oriented toward media arts were filled with young artists conspiring around computers and drawing tables. Our team, which was made up of 18-21 year-olds who had already graduated from the program, started to assemble. Many came from poor communities, and one of them, Leandro Ice, was an established graffiti artist.  

We started with a story circle. I gave the prompt, Why do you make art? The answers were varied and interesting. Here are some of them – 
It’s a good career opportunity
It makes me feel good
I can show what I think
It’s the best tool of expression
We all die someday. I want to show I’m more than just my organs
I didn’t choose art, it chose me
Art expresses a social message

Then I gave a presentation that focused on graphic design for the Rio Olympics and showed a few examples of culture jamming- where artists re-figure established images with new meanings. They liked it and were getting excited. I set up the design assignment  - Think about an Olympic or Paralympic sport and then re-imagine it as an activity that happens in everyday life in Rio, and then connect that new image to one of the Oylmpic or Paralympic values

They worked hard - great drawings and serious conversation. After a while, we gathered to talk about their designs.
Some of the them addressed social and environmental issues well known in Rio. Journalists have been reporting about these issues, often employing local people to tell their own stories

We talked about how these kinds of images would be perceived by the audiences who see them including folks associated with the U.S. Consulate. It was a good and at times tense discussion, but the artists made their case. They said, this is what we know - our reality of Rio.  After lunch, the team decided which images they would use for stencils.

Everyday feats of courage and inspiration
We gathered our materials and made our way to the square where the panels were waiting for us. Show time. It was a busy place, lots of people passing through and immediately they, including a group of mounted police, took notice of our activities (we had permission). Under the shade of a giant tropical tree we laid out the panels and unpacked the spraypaint and stencils.

How and where to start? If I started painting, I thought they might defer to me, so I stood back and let them figure it out. Leandro is a pro and takes charge, teaching others spray can technique. We loosened up. Passersby started conversations with the artists about the project and the Olympics. Some friends and family stopped by. As afternoon slipped into evening, we finished exhausted and happy. 

 From left to right: Forca/Strength, Improviso/Improvisation, Leveza/Lightness, Igualdade/Equality, Superação/Overcoming

Future plans are for the panels to be exhibited on the 4th of July at a U.S. Consulate event and then hopefully they will find a permanent home.

Thanks to all the folks at Oi Kabum!, especially Lorenzo and Daniela for guiding the project and supporting the artists, and Leandro Ice for his skills. Thanks also to Beata and Carla from the U.S. Consulate and Athena from Meridian for your patience and assistance.

Next up...My project with the comunidade of Agua Branca in São Paulo.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Art on the streets of Brasil

Before I left for Brasil, I knew I was headed to one of the most amazing places in the world to see art on the street. Sure enough, right away I saw countless tags, characters and beautifully rendered pieces around every corner.

The legal standing of graffiti is different than what we’re accustomed to in the U.S. It is still true that many places are off limits and the police will stop you, but in many other places it’s considered ok, because it’s art. And this is an important distinction. If your work is just writing or some version of Pichação (the traditional protest script or wall writing now appropriated by thrill seeking young men who hang off buildings to see who can hit the most inaccessible spots) you’re much more likely to be stopped, but if you’re making colorful imagery that is in the same vain as other pieces in the area, you’re fine. Basically this means there are free walls everywhere to express yourself. What a paradigm shift.

What I haven’t seen here are collaborative community-based murals, and I’m just beginning to understand the reasons why. Art, visual art that is, is still considered to be predominantly an individual pursuit – especially graffiti where, although there are crews who paint next to each other, artists maintain their highly individual styles and “tags”. They rarely work with non-artists or on projects that develop and paint designs collectively.

Kaleb, a graffiti artist I’m working with in São Paulo, has been really fascinated with my approach – the time we take, the alchemy of the design process and the collective spirit. He wondered today if I had studied sociology in addition to art because of my methods.

Below is just a taste of what I’ve seen. I’ll be adding the artist’s names as I learn them.



Mural about the tradition of the Paneleiras - women pot makers

"How many women have already been harassed on this street?"

One of the few community murals I've seen


São Paulo

Alexandre Keto