“So when do we get our own wall?” a ten year old volunteer painter asked from the scaffold.
This had been something I’d heard for years from kids while working on the Great Mural Wall. It wasn’t that they couldn’t participate. They were always part of our design teams and painting crews, but what they wanted was a space of their own. Their ideas, their drawings, painted by them.
This is their mural.
Assistant muralist Connie Fiorella - Fitzpatrick and I started by going to where young people gather after school near Chesney Park. Our first stop was the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library rotunda where we were quickly swamped with young artists. Some drew in response to prompts we gave like, “ What advice would you give to adults?” or “What’s the best thing about being a kid in Topeka?” Others drew their friends, family or imaginary scenes of flying dogs and talking giraffes. A few even made portraits of us.
Later, we met older kids in the library’s Teen Zone. Amidst the chaos of after school freedom, it was tough to pull them away from their phones, but when they finally took a break from texting, the drawings they made burned with honesty and emotion. From questions about bullying, support for Black Lives Matter to heartfelt depictions of loneliness, these kids had a lot on their minds and in their hearts.
Again and again we heard kids say that grown-ups just don’t understand, especially when it came to their conversations on social media in the form of emoji filled texts. Connie and talked about how interesting it was that young people were using the ancient and evocative language of pictograms to communicate. Words are slower, hemmed in by layers of cultural meaning and take up so much space. Pictograms or emojis are the colorful secret shorthand of youth, a constantly shifting language of ideas and emotions out of reach of many adults. They are also the perfect storytelling language for murals, so it just made sense that we ask our young artists to write the conversations their characters were having with each other in the language of emojis.
Lots of younger kids in the Topeka area go to Boy’s & Girls Clubs after school, and one of those Clubs is specifically for youth from the Kickapoo Tribe. With the help of our friend Sara O’Keefe, we got to work with them north of Topeka on the Kickapoo reservation near Horton. Connie gave a presentation about our project, and then in pairs the young artists interviewed each other as the basis for portraits they would make.
Our last drawing workshop took place on a beautiful First Friday in the NOTO Arts District. Swarms of small hands covered yards of paper with their visions, while parents stood back checking facebook or Instagram. The improvised collaboration that emerged among these young passersby was inspiring, reminding us about the power of art to bring people together across difference.
The mural design that developed from these dozens drawings imagines the various characters, portraits, animals and creatures inhabiting a common world, chatting with each other in emoji texts about life.
Painting the mural took take place over two summers (due to Connie and Dave’s new muralista, Andrés, being born :). And in that time, our beloved collaborator, rabble-rouser, critic and Chesney Park cheerleader Frank Hoge passed away at age 91. Frank was infamous too. For the last ten years, he’d been Chesney Park’s best known graffiti artist, spraypainting butterflies over any offensive tag or dull patch of gray. Always young at heart, this new mural is dedicated to Frank.
Thanks to all of the young people who let us collaborate with them in the creation of this mural. You inspire us. Thanks also to the grown-ups who helped us too – Leah Sewell, Sara O’Keefe, Michael Bradley, Hi Stockwell, Tom Benaka, Frank Hoge, the Chesney Park NIA and the folks at ArtsConnect.
A public celebration for the mural and artists is Saturday, November 11th at 2pm at the mural site, 20th & Fillmore in Topeka.