A throw-back in honor of the upcoming eclipse.
Twenty-three years ago I experienced my first eclipse. It wasn’t total. It was annular, meaning, because of its proximity to the earth, the moon didn’t completely cover the sun. Unsure about what was about to happen, my roommate and I stood outside our apartment in Lawrence, Kansas waiting for something to change. It came as an odd, slow dimming almost imperceptible but for the sounds. The rising sounds of birds and insects and dogs, howls and chirps that would normally happen as evening approached. Like the animals we are, I felt my hackles go up. It was eerie and instinctual.
I also remember an unexpected effect of the eclipse. It was how it brought people together. It was a true spectacle, something outside of the everyday we could all witness but were powerless to control. And it was in that liminal moment that a space in time was opened for passersby and strangers to meet and wonder - together.
Six years later.
I was in Grinnell, Iowa, the small town where I’d gone to college in the 80’s and was back to work on a mural with students from both the town and college. Early in the project at a community meeting folks were having a hard time getting beyond flat characterizations of each other - elitist, townie, hippie, red neck - when I recalled that moment of the eclipse and of how it briefly allowed people who might not normally talk to each other to gaze up at the sky and chat.
I thought about one reality obscuring, eclipsing another, what we see and how we adjust to absence. The answer during an eclipse is the wild and beautiful corona, which can only be observed when the moon is directly in front of the sun. When one idea obscures another, sometimes new things are revealed. In awe of the eclipse, we briefly recognize our fragility and connectedness. I shared my thoughts with the mural team and after much discussion and drawing, we chose to represent the Grinnell community coming together during an eclipse.
The design has four parts. On the left a group of people, in front an iconic Louis Sullivan bank decoration from town, come 'to the table' to work on an issue, make a plan, discuss a problem, and listen to each other. On the far right, a group of local domesticated and wild animals take notice of the humans. And in the center of the mural above the intersection/crossing of north-south and east-west train lines, a symbolic figure brings a gesture of good will, inspiration, solace, across the dark blue disc of the eclipse.
The mural was commissioned by the Grinnell Area Arts Council. My friend Karla Niehus who worked at the Faulconer Gallery and served on the Arts Council was the project coordinator. Grinnell student Alex Racho was the assistant. Students from Grinnell High School, New Horizons Alternative High School and College made up the design team. If you’re driving across Iowa on I-80, stop in Grinnell for a meal at my friend Kamal’s restaurant, Relish, and then check out Eclipse the mural at the corner of 3rd Avenue and Park Street.
Earlier this summer, I had a great time leading Baldwin City’s first community mural project. Created with the help of more than one hundred residents, it imagines new murals sprouting from giant maple tree seeds filled with images of the community’s history and culture. Known for their distinctive shape and helicopter like flight, the local design team portrayed stories of Baldwin City through maple seeds, parent to the maple leaf and namesake of the community's beloved fall festival.
The ten giant seeds frame images including the Women’s Bridge, champion brick layer Jim Garfield Brown, Baker University, and Signal Oak. At the center of the mural, downtown’s fountain is illuminated by firefly like maple seeds, and encourages visitors to #wear the wings! Thanks to everyone who helped make this project possible, especially Project Coordinator Jeannette Blackmar, Mural Assistant Nicholas Ward, and Mural Apprentices Ella Conover, Alaina Schiffelbein and Megan Young.
See the mural for yourself at 608 High St. in Baldwin City, Kansas.
After receiving Lawrence Cultural Arts Commission and City Commission approvals, securing liability insurance and getting the ok to use five parking spaces in front of the wall, we finally have begun painting. Over Memorial Day weekend, no less than 130 people helped revive the Pollinators by adding their own brushstrokes.
The design for the mural is based on an intensive community-based process that I led this spring with the help of Nedra Bonds, Janada Birdling, Eugene Sarmiento, Susan Earle and a volunteer design team. We explored the original project, it’s untimely demise and how a new version of the mural could reflect a changed environment ten years later. Our new design engages with those forces that inhibit or threaten pollination, considering questions about what plants and creatures are thought of as pests or weeds and why. And it celebrates the capacity of art and artists to envision a more just and sustainable world.
The new design shows the original artists addressing threats to pollinators by working together to rebuild their mural and create a more sustainable habitat for all. In this new design, Gordon Parks, Hattie McDaniel and Langston Hughes reassemble pieces of the original mural, while Oscar Micheaux documents. Coleman Hawkins saxophone plays more than music now as it releases brilliantly colored pollen grains toward awaiting flowers.
And Gwendolyn Brooks has taken off from the ground with a wave of pollinating creatures (many created by young people at New York School) rushing toward a desaturated landscape hoping to bring color and vitality back. As she flies, she writes a new quote into the sky, “And this is the urgency: Live! And have your blooming in the noise of the whirlwind.”
Our team recognized that the original group of artists (Pollinators) all came from a particular time period associated with the Harlem Renaissance, and wanted to add more contemporary figures to help broaden the mural’s meaning. Added in the design is a new generation represented by a boy on the right helping to reconstruct the original mural, a girl on the left receiving A. Douglas’s palette like a baton in a relay, and the musician and actress Janelle Monáe inspiring the group with song.
A public celebration of the (almost) completed mural will be on Friday, June 9th at 5:30.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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…