Saturday, May 12, 2012

"Breaking Out" at Haskell Indian Nations University

A couple weeks ago I got an email from a student at Haskell Indian Nations University. The student, Zeke Reedy, asked if I might come by and help with a small mural he and some classmates wanted to do for their 'Theories of Decolinzation and Indiginization' class taught by Julia Goodfox.  Zeke explained the project - "The mural would tie in with what we have learned in class. My group came up with the idea of a prison scene with people from various cultures breaking down the bars. This would symbolize how peoples from all over the world have experienced colonization and the breaking down of the bars would be the decolonizing aspect of the class."

Their assignment was due in little more than a week, so without skipping a beat, I met the next day with Zeke and the rest of his group, Harlen Harvey, Feather Wolfin, Tony Mendez, James (corn) Cornshucker and Hill Danni, in the dimly lit hallway of Parker Hall where the mural would be painted. We talked about design issues like composition, content, intent, audience, context, and then practical concerns like the wall surface, transfer of the image, paint, and sealer. That was day one.

Over the following week, we met at my studio to look at some of my past mural studies and then back at Parker Hall to go through the process of how to transfer their design to the wall using the squaring-up method. Such great students! It was incredible to see how quickly and skillfully they were able to transform their idea into a captivating mural design that expressed their message with such clarity.

Translating an idea from words on a page to paint on a wall can be liberating. All at once you have many new tools and a whole new language to communicate with. Where an essay uses only words, the mural can employ scale, color, a physical space, light, and line in addition to words to help shape the story.
For the audience, the experience of 'reading' a mural that is intended to communicate a specific message can be challenging without the structure of paragraphs, sentences, and parts of speech.  But, losing those structures may open viewers to new ways of seeing and comprehending that reach beyond the literal, and deeper into areas of metaphor and symbol.

My limited role in this project reaffirmed my belief that this work is accessible to just about anyone who has the will to do it. Here a group of students who had never done any kind of mural before (at a university that has a very limited art department), knocked it out of the park. In terms of its design and sophisticated use of visual metaphor, their mural is remarkable for a first effort.

The mural titled "Breaking Out" speaks for itself and will hopefully speak to generations of Haskell students and faculty who pass through Parker Hall in years to come. It was my great good fortune to get to work with these young muralists. My hope is that "Breaking Out" is just the beginning of a new series of murals at Haskell, and by Haskell students in other parts of Lawrence. If this one is any indication, we're in store for some serious and beautiful new public artworks.

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