Wednesday, July 5, 2017

"I am a Muralist" - A Social Justice Mural with Smart Kiddos

Hi everyone!

Prepare for a word-y, picture heavy post. This one's a doozy.

If you've followed this blog for a long time, you'll know that I originally started it as a way to document and explain my art lessons with kids, so that other teachers and teaching artists could benefit from them. I have since moved on and changed careers, and my blog has changed to reflect that. I used to be a Teaching Artist. I was on a roster with the local art council, and would get hired to visit schools to work with their kids in creating murals. Sometimes the contracts would last over a month, and sometimes just for a day. In my job now, I work a 9-5 as a graphic designer for a company. It's a more steady income flow, and it was just a nice career shift for me. While I definitely love still doing my own mural work on the side, there are days when I really miss making art with the kids. 

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to work with a classroom on a mural again. The school guidance counselor reached out to me through my website, and asked if I would be willing to donate my time to help them create a mural. My work just happens to give me 2 days per year to do service work, so that worked out perfectly for this project. This is how the school counselor described their situation:

"100% of our students receive free lunch. Our students are mostly kids of color and many are first or second generation Americans. Many of our kiddos have challenging home lives and have parents who are incarcerated, addicted or absentee. My role as the School Counselor is to teach skills and give support to these young people regarding the hurt, frustration, sadness and anger they have. We are a school of many white walls. I believe children will invest in what they see their environment to be and I don't believe white sterile walls are good for anyone, let alone children."

How could I possibly say no to that? We met up with the teacher who would be leading the project with me, and game-planned. The students would create a mural based on a poem that they were used to reading every morning before they started their school work. Here is that poem, written by Luis Valdez:

Tú eres mi otro yo.
You are my other me.

Si te hago daño a ti,
If I do harm to you,

Me hago daño a mi mismo.
I do harm to myself.

Si te amo y respeto,
If I love and respect you,

Me amo y respeto yo.
I love and respect myself.

The kids were assigned to draw and write about what the poem meant to them. The teacher then sent me all of their answers and drawings. I took stock of the images that came up repeatedly in the kids' work: Landscapes. Children holding hands. Children of different colors. Hearts. Then, I took those images and turned them into one cohesive mural design, which I traced onto the wall myself before working with the kids. 

in lak'ech, student mural, social justice mural, kids mural, portland muralist, portland artist

On painting day #1, I gave a short presentation about the mural work I do. We talked about what makes a mural different from other art (it's art for everyone to enjoy, it's art for a community). We also talked about what it means to do a project together and work collaboratively (no one person gets to do the "coolest part" all by themselves. It takes ALL our brushstrokes to make up this picture, together). The biggest thing I had to tell them though, was why art is important. We talked about my murals done in the Peace Corps, in areas where the literacy rates are very low - murals become communication and teaching tools, more than the written word. Murals can explain to the public, the feelings of a community. This mural they were creating as a classroom, was going to explain their feelings and values to the school community. Murals give people voices. 

Then, we got to work. I approach murals with kids with a "one kid, one color, one job" approach. I mix a ton of colors in solo cups (house party supplies coming in handy! haha) and give one to each kid as they cycle through turns painting. Each kid gets a job. I ask them to fill in something, outline something, add some trees here, etc. They use their color, in their area, to finish their job. After 15-20 minutes, we rotate kids. Rinse and repeat until the mural feels finished. We had such a blast!

in lak'ech, student mural, social justice mural, kids mural, portland muralist, portland artist

in lak'ech, student mural, social justice mural, kids mural, portland muralist, portland artist

in lak'ech, student mural, social justice mural, kids mural, portland muralist, portland artist

in lak'ech, student mural, social justice mural, kids mural, portland muralist, portland artist

in lak'ech, student mural, social justice mural, kids mural, portland muralist, portland artistin lak'ech, student mural, social justice mural, kids mural, portland muralist, portland artist
In the end, it looks absolutely beautiful. Since the first day when I made the black outlines, I had not touched it. I only directed the kiddos, much like I imagine a conductor would direct a symphony. The kids become my paintbrushes :) They did such a great job!

In the middle of the second day, the guidance counselor came up to tell me this: "one of the Latina girls you have been painting with just told me that she has felt sad with all the people saying they are not happy with immigrants being here. But she said that after painting this and seeing people with all the different skin colors in the mural, she feels like people really do love her." (I'm not crying, you're crying!) The lesson here is this: there are many ways to resist injustice. I was not in the streets that day, I was wrangling children with paintbrushes. But it's clearly made a small difference, if just to a few shorter, lovely humans. 

Here are a few of the kids' responses to their experiences. Again, heart melts. My favorite: "I am a muralist." Yeah kid, you sure are. 




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