Everything Connects to Everything Else

Thirteen years ago students at Lawrence’s Century School imagined making a mural in the empty lot behind their building. Led by a first year teacher, Tim Holtzclaw, they dove in. They studied Diego Rivera and John Steuart Curry. They visited murals in Lawrence and learned about the technical process. Then they researched, discussed ideas and drew,  eventually landing on the theme “Everything Connects to Everything Else.” In addition to art, this semester long community project took students out of the classroom and into the world of land ownership, liability insurance and eventually civics at the City Commission chambers where they had to fight for permission to paint.

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Parents expressed how impactful the project was in a newspaper guest column where they said, "This, more than anything else, is the gift that Century School has given the Lawrence community: children who see themselves as part of, and as connected to, all that surround them."


Over the years the mural has been the backdrop for a community garden and more recently a small apple apple orchard. It’s been admired by thousands, but won’t be for much longer. Former city commissioner Bob Schumm owns the property just to the north and will break ground on a new apartment building (including a condo for himself on the top floor) that will cover the mural. (UPDATE as of August 1, 2018 - Developer gives up on idea for five-story condo.)

That’s why the mural artists (many in their twenties now) and their teacher Mr. Holtzclaw are having a reunion to celebrate. It’s tomorrow at 5pm at the mural, at 815 Vermont Street. The mural still looks fantastic even without any touch-ups, and the theme couldn’t be more relevant.  Go see for yourself while it’s still there.


The Percolator turns 10!

It's the tenth anniversary of Lawrence's grass-roots, home-brewed, free-range art space. The Percolator! Whoa, how time flies. I remember the moment Christina Hoxie suggested we were more than an incubator (like the one in Kansas City), we percolated and dubbed our rag-tag crew the Percolator. There is a great show (opening Friday June 29th) and special events to mark the anniversary detailed here. To spark collective memory here are some of the early show posters. The first two, The Ex-Show and Bikes or Art?, are from the very early days when the Perco was still based in my studio. Enjoy!

Creating Counterparts documentary film

During the course of the 1999-2000 school year, two groups of high school students, one from Holcomb, Missouri population 531 and the other from New York City population 10,000,000, worked together to create a mural about their perceptions of one another and the communities they lived in.

With school in session and more than 1000 miles between them, it was impossible for the two groups to work in the same physical space. The students overcame these obstacles guided by an innovative curriculum I developed with Baruch College Education Professor Sandra Stein that harnessed new computer technology to bridge the physical distance between them and make their collaboration possible.

After eight months of work, the completed mural titled “Counterparts” debuted in New York to a huge reception including, by a miracle of grassroots fundraising, all of the mural team members from both schools.

Creating Counterparts follows this story from the first workshops in both Holcomb and New York where students revealed their guarded perceptions of each other from 1000 miles away, to a serious conversation eleven months later about tolerance and faith, that took place, in South Eastern Missouri.

The film celebrates the capacity of art and technology projects to open doorways and challenge our perceptions. It also shows how this particular project was realized in the hope that others will be inspired to envision their own ways of bridging the divides that separate us.

Watch the entire film here.

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Who will speak for the trees?

One of East Lawrence's oldest residents has become the latest victim to gentrification. Yesterday this magnificent tree just north of the Wishing Bench was cut down. (For more about this tree, check out my March 28th post on the "Man!!! Look at This Thing I Saw in a Lawrence, Kansas Alley" Facebook page.)

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This is not the first elder tree to lose out to developers. In 1989, activists fought to protect a stand of cottonwoods where the (failed) Riverfront Mall now stands. And in 2003 there was a heated battle between developers of the Hobbs-Taylor building and a coalition of neighbors and activists about the fate of giant elm near the corner of 8th & Rhode Island.

         "Save the Tree" at 8th & Rhode Island, 2003

        "Save the Tree" at 8th & Rhode Island, 2003

Developers claimed that the tree was dying anyway, was dangerous and would cost too much to save. Sound familiar? Folks hoping to save the tree rallied, made t-shirts, brought in the media and eventually set-up an encampment around the tree to ensure it wouldn't be cut-down by surprise. A mural on the south side of Cottins Hardware by Ardys Ramberg and Missy McCoy memorializes the tree and the fight to save it.

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There are other trees, regular everyday trees that don't have advocates like the elders. They disappear daily at the whim of property owners, utility companies and the occasional big wind. One of these anonymous trees was in the line of sight looking out the window of the Lawrence Percolator in 2009 (before the Marriott). For the exhibition, "Trees I Have Known," I created the "Illuminated Nearby Tree," which functioned as a template for people to recount their memories of trees by writing short stories within the illuminated branches. Before the show was over, the tree it was based on was gone too, a inconvenience to builders of the new apartment building and fitness club.


Justice for Margarita

As part of the effort to achieve justice for my partner Connie's mom, Margarita, I made this limited edition stencil print in English and Spanish. It is available through her Indiegogo Campaign for those who donate $300 or more. A smaller signed inkjet print on archival paper is available for those who donate $20 or more. #justiceformargarita #justiciaparamargarita

MayDay 2017

North American marsupials are organizing. Join them in the streets on May 1st !  Get your own free download of this poster at Justseeds.

The triplets of racism, materialism and militarism

In support of the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture's national day of action #Revolution of Values, I made these 'postcards' of defunct monuments. They refer to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s April 4, 1967 Riverside Speech when he said,
[W]e as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.


They are influenced by my memory of kudzu consuming all sorts of man-made structures in Mississippi when I was working there in 2009.  Soon after I made these, a group of artists from Charlottsville, VA, contacted me to ask if they could use “Defunct Monument I – Racism” as a model for an activist campaign they’d imagined. This led to the “Kudzu Project,” who’s members have been covering Confederate statues with hand-knitted kudzu as a way of symbolizing those monuments roots in a racist ideology. 

 Update: This statue was  removed and put in storage  on Wednesday, May 10th by the City of New Orleans.

Update: This statue was removed and put in storage on Wednesday, May 10th by the City of New Orleans.

Designing a New Habitat for the Pollinators

It’s getting lighter. Daylight savings time is back. Mural season. Flowers awaiting pollination are beginning to bloom, daffodils and dandelions first. Bees are appearing and monarchs have begun their migration north from Mexico. There’s front-page news in the Journal-World that a fraternity of eighty-seven guys has moved into the 888 New Hampshire building (where our mural will be), while their palatial estate was being renovated. Closing in on the north side of the farmers market parking lot, construction continues on a yet another upscale apartment building shrinking evermore the neighborhood’s habitat for affordable housing.

In the studio a couple blocks away, we began imagining how the Pollinator artists would have responded to the destruction of the original mural, and how they would feel about changes to the neighborhood.  Would they act to protect and defend natures’ pollinators against threats to their habitat? How would they respond to the new building on which they would be painted and what it signaled for the East side of Lawrence? Would other artists be compelled to join them in their struggle?

Our initial drawings illustrate a tension between competing ideas about how neighborhoods develop and change, and who or what affects that change. As we worked, we talked about the tools and strategies artists posses to address these issues - how music, poetry, film and painting can shift perceptions and inspire action.

As space for affordable housing shrinks near downtown, so does the habitat for nature's pollinators. Market driven monoculture has replaced many wild and organic backyards and greenspaces in Lawrence with chemically enhanced weed-free sod. Dandelions are the enemy, technology the solution as with these newly developed 'drone pollinators.'

This kind of erasure isn't new. Mural Assistant Nedra Bonds has seen it before. In the 1980's, the historic site of Quindaro, near Nedra's home in Kansas City, Kansas, was nearly turned into a trash dump. No one in power seemed to care that Quindaro had been established by Wyandots and Abolitionists to fight pro-slavery forces until Bonds and others started to make a fuss and tell the story through quilts. It is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

                                                     Nedra sharing her Quindaro quilt at our Design Team workshop

                                                    Nedra sharing her Quindaro quilt at our Design Team workshop

So what's the antidote to market driven monoculture? Wes Jackson at the Land Institute calls it perennial-polyculture, a practice of mimicking the prairies of central Kansas to produce crops that don't require the soil numbing toxins used in industrialized agriculture. We asked ourselves what a perrenial-polyculture of built structures and human community would look like in Lawrence. Our answer meant aligning the mural design with wind-blown seeds, weeds and migrating pollinators both human and winged who eschew monotone and monochrome for a full spectrum of experience.


Sanctuary: A place of refuge or safety. 

Santuario: Un lugar de refugio o seguridad.

Communities across the U.S. are declaring themselves Sanctuaries , and are refusing to collude with I.C.E, in order to protect targeted immigrants and to ensure that families are not torn apart by unjust laws. In a xenophobic rage, the President has promised retribution against any municipality that acts on behalf of people who don't have specific types of documentation. Here in Kansas, the Governor and Secretary of State have doubled down on these threats, proposing to completely defund communities that don't actively search for and detain those they deem unwelcome. This poster is available as a free download at Justseeds.

Re-imagining the Pollinators

For many Lawrence folks, especially those that frequent Saturday farmers market, the Pollinators mural and its untimely demise are still fresh in their memories. News that the mural would have a second life was celebrated but also prompted many questions. Where would the new mural be located? Would it be the same size? Who would design and paint it? And most crucially, would the design be the same, including the seven African-American artists and the Gwendolyn Brooks quote, “We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond”?

Answering the first three questions was easy. The new mural would be at the same relative location (the north facing wall adjacent to farmers market), although only about half as large. The muralists, as I mentioned in our previous blog post, would be comprised of both new and old design team members plus a new assistant and two new apprentices.  Much more difficult to answer is the last question - how would the design be different from the original, what would remain, what would be changed, and what would be added?

Since early February, our design team has been grappling with these questions. Early on we chose to not merely reproduce the original Pollinators, but to re-imagine it. We committed  to honoring the original while adding elements that speak to a new time and new circumstances.

There are a few precedents for re-imagining a mural. The iconic “Wall of Respect” in Chicago, which evolved over the years with some images being replaced with others as needed, is probably the best known.

 The "Wall of Respect" in Chicago, Illinois.

The "Wall of Respect" in Chicago, Illinois.

The idea that a mural does not necessarily have to be static or ever really finished, that it can be a living expression that grows and changes with the times has been a compelling notion for our design team. Because visual art is bought and sold as a commodity, there is less opportunity to change something after it's left the studio, while re-imagining artworks in other media like dance and theater is much more familiar. It’s not uncommon to see reinterpretations or updated versions of well-known stories from the likes of Shakespeare or August Wilson set in new contexts with casts that reflect different points of view. We have that opportunity because the Pollinators is being recreated and we can make changes if we wish. It would be a much different story for folks at the Spencer Museum and City, I imagine, if the original mural was still there and we proposed to change and adapt it.

To ground our re-imagining, we began at the Lawrence Public Library with research about the original Pollinators, it’s subject matter and design, and how the community came together to ensure it would rise again.

The team felt strongly that this story of why the mural was destroyed and the community effort to restore it needed to be depicted in some form. The fate of the Pollinators is connected to the larger story about how downtown Lawrence is changing and who will benefit from those changes. Re-examining the central metaphor from the original mural, we began thinking about the factors, agents, etc. that inhibit or block pollination in nature. This led us to question what factors might inhibit the ability of the artists depicted (and their descendants) to ‘pollinate’, and how analogous forces could prevent cultural cross-pollination in the larger community. Big questions.

So, instead of separating our discussion about the biology of pollination from the African-American artist pollinators in the mural and the cultural impact of new development, we let these ideas overlap, complicate and influence each other. We talked about monoculture in agriculture and how to spot signs of monoculture within the cultural community of Lawrence. We talked about the shape and structure of pollen grains, the persistence, beauty and utility of 'weeds', contemporary African-American artists with roots in Kansas, and we talked about how upscale development is encroaching on the East side with uncertain consequences. Our research and conversations produced a wealth of ideas.


In this way, the re-imagined Pollinators project has become a forum for creatively addressing important issues including affordable housing, food justice, and people’s history.  This is intentional. Inspired by the examples of artists Liz Lerman, Augusto Boal and Judy Baca, our approach is founded on the idea that a collaborative creative process can illuminate and articulate community conflicts and aspirations in ways that can lead to equitable and just solutions.

Next, we begin to visualize the mural design…