Thursday, August 12, 2010

Newton - Research I

How do you decide what to include in the mural?

This is one of the most common questions (and one of the toughest to answer) I get when beginning a new project. The flip-side question, how do you decide what to leave out? is easier to answer because, put bluntly, the answer is that most things are left out.

At one of our first community meetings, with hundreds of possible ideas on the table and no clear way to make them all fit together, I reminded participants that this was only one mural. If we wanted to create a visually compelling and meaningful artwork and not just a simple enumeration of things, the bulk of historical facts and faces, dates and places would need to be left on the cutting-room floor. Collaboration implies compromise.

Working to evoke the history, culture, and people of a place with any sort of objective truth in a public art work is a daunting task. As you begin to do research, it becomes clear that perceptions of history, culture, and development are rarely static or monolithic. Every place and every community of people has many overlapping notions about their history and community, many of which are in flux as economic, political, and demographic circumstances change.

Our design team meetings have reflected this complicated understanding of the past, as if history were constructed of hundreds of photos of the same scene from hundreds of individual points of view. Like a cubist painting by Picasso where fruits, faces, chairs and tables are depicted simultaneously from straight-on, profile, above and below in the same image, or a popular song that is interpreted first by an opera singer, next by a rock -n- roller, and finally by a bluegrass troubadour, meanings change depending on the singer, painter, or teller of a story.

Listening to such a wide range of points of view about essentially the same set of facts, we began to realize that the overlapping of history and complex multifaceted understanding of Newton’s identity, discussed in our community meetings, corresponded to the dynamic nature of a place at a nexus or crossroads. And because Newton is and always has been a place of crossroads, cross-currents, and cross-pollination, we felt like we had found a potential theme for the mural.

Newton's identity is grounded in its location as a geographic, economic, and cultural intersection. Early in its history, during the cattle drives of the 19th century, Newton was where the Chisholm Trail and the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railway crossed. Later it became the intersection of two of the most important auto routes in North America: the Meridian Highway (U.S. Route 81) which runs south from Winnipeg, Manitoba Canada through Newton to Mexico City, Mexico and on into Central America; and U.S. Route 50, better known as Main Street USA, which begins in Washington, D.C. goes right through Newton and ends in Sacramento, California. And throughout its history, Newton has been a locus of cultural and ethnic integration welcoming immigrants from around the world, especially Mennonites from Russia and Hispanics mainly from Mexico.

Our challenge has been to find a way to elaborate on the raw information of these crossings, framing them within visual metaphors that can hopefully get at the spirit or essence of the Newton /North Newton community.

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