Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Recreating "Guardians of the Arts"

Nineteen years ago I was twenty-six and working as the produce manager for the Community Mercantile at 9th & Mississippi. At the time, I was trying to find my way as an artist after having left graduate school in frustration, knowing that I didn't want to pursue academia but unsure how an artist could survive without it. Looking back, I was at a crossroads - in one direction there was a chance at a career in the natural foods industry (at six dollars an hour), in the other direction there wasn't much at all except a glimmer of an idea that included me on a scaffold painting murals...somewhere.  I chose (or did it choose me?) the less lucrative, surely irresponsible path. Thank goodness.

The year before I'd made two murals at new bar called Quinton's and was anxious to do more. But unlike the pretty much solo efforts that those were, I wanted to delve into the kind of community-based projects I'd been reading about in the book "Toward a People's Art." The opportunity came when Lawrence's second annual Harvest of Arts festival was announced. As a part of the festival, I proposed doing a 'Community Mural' in one of the downtown breezeways on Massachusetts Street. It was a cinch, I thought.  Supplies would be donated and labor would be volunteered. All we had to do was get the design approved by the Arts Commission, Historic Resources Commission, and City Commission...

I didn't realize it at the time, but I was about to get schooled in what it meant to work in public, including all the media scrutiny and bureaucratic red tape that comes with it. The day after the project was listed on the City Commission agenda, this was the lead editorial in the Lawrence Journal-World

Fortunately, the LJ-W didn't have the authority to make or break the project and others in town made that point as in this letter to the editor a few days later -

Needless to say we eventually got the approval. The mural team was an interesting mix of friends, co-workers,  and complete strangers who had responded to the flier I had put up around town asking for volunteers. Our final design was an unlikely gathering of figures drawn from different cultural traditions that were embellished to represent the Arts. It was a bit of a mishmash but got the point across that these were symbolic representations of Music, Performing Arts, and the Plastic Arts (making stuff with your hands). In mid-September, we set up the scaffold and squared-up the design.  On our first day of painting, I shook and mixed concoctions of Valspar latex paint. like a hot-shot bartender, while others slowly brought the Guardians to life, inch by inch and color by color.

That was nineteen years ago. Since then, kids have grown up with the Guardians, a generation of drunks have stumbled by it (and into it), and countless photos have been taken of people in front of it. I've seen it so many times that it has become invisible in a way, no longer something I did just something I know, a landmark and a point of reference in time and of a place. Then in 2011,  the wall of what is now the Signs of Life building began to shed the concrete shell that the mural was painted on.

Clay, the owner of Signs of Life, emailed me that major repairs were needed and that as part of them the mural would be completely covered by a coating of opaque white sealer. I wasn't sure what to do. Should I just let the mural go since it had had a good run, or should I see if there was support for recreating it - from scratch?  Using the flier of 2011, a blog post, I asked if people wanted the mural to be repainted. They did, big time. And not only that, the Chamber of Commerce, yeah that's right the Chamber of Commerce, organized a fundraising campaign to pay for the paint and other supplies. Diamond Everly Roofing donated the scaffolding, and I gave my time.

The new version of the mural has the same composition and spirit as the original with a few updates. First, the paint is the brilliant and durable, muralist approved, Nova Color. Second, is an update to the Music totem in the center of the mural. No longer are the sound daemons anonymous and drum headed. Now they're all inspired by local musicians who at one time or another have played on the street. See if you can figure out who is who. And the third update was to let the tree branches framing the Guardians grow out of the confines of the mural rectangle to meet their counterparts above.

Recreating the Guardians was a weird trip down memory lane. Between the first and second paintings, I had done nearly seventy other murals, so returning to the the Guardians was like remaking your first cake after having been a professional baker for twenty years. It was a nostalgic and ultimately gratifying experience if for no other reason than the support for its recreation meant that the mural still held meaning for people after all these years. This is important to consider as other public artworks* in Lawrence age and need restoration and upkeep.
*The Mural "Seeds" on the old co-op at 9th & Mississippi will need work very soon.

Thanks to all the original designers and painters from 1993.

And thanks to the great group of new painters and donors who came together to make the recreation possible, including John Ross, KT Walsh, Willie Frick, Diamond Everly Roofing and Ashley Laird. 

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