Innovators & Elders:
Painting in the Streets
Artists Olivia Gude, Marcus Akinlana, and Beatriz Santiago Munoz are artists who often work in the form of community murals. They are members of Chicago Public Art Group, an artists’ collective that was founded twenty-six years ago by William Walker, Eugene Eda, and John Pitman Weber. Walker, Eda, and Weber were key figures in the reinvention of murals as a contemporary urban street art form.
In this conversation in 1995 through a long evening of power outages and ice cream, after a long hot day of painting, Gude, Akinlana, and Santiago explore what it means to be mentored into a continuous tradition of collaborative, community-based art. What are the responsibilities, the contradictions and the possibilities?
Olivia Gude: I see young artists today struggling with questions of audience, authenticity, and balance between individual vision and collective and community vision. These artists are often cut off from their antecedents. Even if they are familiar with the artistic products of earlier political art movements, they are cut off from the living tradition, from having direct access to the artists. I think this limits understanding of the interaction of social action and aesthetic discussion through which the work was generated.
The three of us, along with others in later generations of Chicago Public Art Group artists, share that we are all inheritors of a political, public art tradition. We’ve had access to firsthand knowledge of choices, practices, and troubles of earlier generations of muralists. For me, it’s been a second graduate education, rooted in practice and history.
Bea: None of us were part of the original mural movement and we’ve come into the movement at different times. I designed and painted my first outdoor mural in 1992. Marcus, I believe your first big project was the Roseland Pullman mural in 1988. Olivia, when did you get started?
Olivia: I painted my first outdoor mural in 1986, but I’d been doing collaborative murals indoors since the late seventies. Also, during the early eighties I worked with a partner, Jon Pounds, doing non-permission street pieces.
Bea: Along with understanding and building on the community murals tradition, I think we’ve been actively engaged in interrogating the tradition as a means to keeping it a living movement, capable of dealing with the cultural complexities of today. How does our work fit into the politics of today? How do we, as artists, reinvent ourselves, reinvent the tradition?
My relationship to the mural tradition in the Americas--the Mexican Mural Movement and the contemporary street murals was based on its association with progressive, grassroots politics. I’ve been doing some research on how people have thought about the role of murals in society and right next to a Diego Rivera article about the revolutionary power of murals was an article by the fascist mural painter, Mario Sironi, talking about the wonderful fascist power of mural painting.
Olivia: So we have to face that the wonderful political power of mural painting to influence people in their daily lives is not necessarily progressive.
Bea: Yes, the form does not inherently have a politics. It’s a very powerful public tool. We are part of a broad tradition of using forms that have a large audience.
Olivia: That’s certainly a large part of what attracted me to murals. Another broad theme I’ve felt connected to is the desire to decommodify the art object.
Early in my artistic career, I felt frustrated and alienated by making work that would not be seen by many people. I also had this sudden awareness-if I keep making work, what am I going to do with it? Where am I going to store it if I don’t sell it? And how am I going to sell work that’s got the kind of politics I want to explore and develop? Why would museums or galleries who are intimately tied into structures of power be willing to show such work?
Doing outdoor street pieces seemed to resolve many of those questions. Though, of course, it also created new ones. Doing street art, broke the barrier of isolation from a larger public and freed me from some of the constraints of private ownership of work. It was so freeing to do a major piece, take a slide, and be able to walk away. I could think about people and politics, instead of maintaining and placing objects.
Joining CPAG, a group with a tradition of community -based collaborations, introduced me to a whole other level of process and content. The work was not about only expressing oneself on the street; it was rooted in a conscious choice to see the audience and artist relationship as reciprocal. The word “community” is probably over-used and under-examined in the artworld these days, but the muralists have spent three decades asking the questions, “ What does it mean to be an artist in relationship to community?” “ What is my responsibility as an artist to the multiple communities to which I belong?” and perhaps, most importantly, “How does collective art making contribute to the making and shaping of the community?”
I think some of the best muralists have a kind of love/hate relationship with the form. They are constantly questioning the efficacy and the politics of the murals in interaction with the communities.
Bea: A lot of murals I saw in Puerto Rico were very simplistic. They had a African man, a Taino (the indigenous native people of the Caribbean before the coming of Columbus) and a Spaniard. All were dressed in the garb of the colonial period, all holding hands happily. Perhaps the worst example of a false multi-culturalism I’ve ever seen. That’s what murals were to me until I had access to art books and saw the possibility of other kinds of mural work.
Marcus: I definitely did not begin with that love/hate relationship, but I was getting exposed to a different type of murals. I was in D.C., looking at books with pictures of murals done here in Chicago and in L.A. from the late sixties and into the seventies. So those murals were different than what Bea is describing. Those sound politically backwards, propaganda for a Babylon system.
Especially when I was younger, I wanted to make art work that would heighten people’s political consciousness, particularly in my community, the African American community. I wanted to heighten their self awareness as human beings, their self worth, and understanding of their culture and heritage. I asked myself, “How can I do that?” and because I am a painter the best way to do that was through murals.
Murals are big and overwhelming; they overwhelm your senses. Just by the very size of them they make a lasting impression on you. A studio painting could even be a better quality painting than a mural, but for the most part it will never make the impression that a mural will make on the general public.
And a mural will be seen by thousands of people and, of course, advertisers are using this exact same medium for their purposes. Later I realized that Jeff Donaldson and AfriCobra put forward in the 1970’s that African American artists should make big things to impress the minds of the people. That was its appeal to me.
Olivia: It's wonderful when children paint murals, but it’s frustrating that people in the artworld don't differentiate between children’s murals and murals that are generated in a complex community process with professional community artists. I think the lack of critical attention has hurt the ability of the mural movement to grow and develop aesthetically.
Marcus: Well, you know we’ve had numerous conversations about that, about pushing the mural aesthetic onwards as a creative art form, like any other art form. To me, murals shouldn’t be a political propaganda machine. It's an art form. An art form is concerned with making a piece of quality craft and with being creative, so being creative means you’re not doing the same thing for twenty five years. That’s one thing I’d like to see as far as the overall movement--a heightened awareness of people taking their time to become masters. If your art form is working with the community, painting, sculpting, whatever your art calls for--take the time to master your craft so that we can have a movement that’s based on excellence.
Now murals began as a grassroots movement so it didn’t necessarily spring particularly from artists. Not everybody who began the mural movement was an artist. It was a popular movement and it has come from those roots and grown from there. It’s still a popular movement, but it has grown from its base.
Olivia: When you say “Push the aesthetic,” do you have certain categories that you've thought about that you would like to see developed?
Marcus: I’ve noticed that quite a few things that artists do in their studio work, they don’t bring into their murals. We need to risk, to bring these images out into the public. It’s good to have the social conscience in your art, but at the same time you should be trying to master your craft. This is nothing new--AfriCobra said this years ago. Number Two of their eight principles was, “Good art, excellence.”
Olivia: I’m interested in exploring the social and aesthetic meanings that come out of collaboration and difference within murals. Coming from a painting background, I came to mural making with a painting sensibility. I was very conscious of how the individual mark of the painter was a primary generator of meaning within the work. In 1987, on the Mifflin Cooperative Mural, I worked with a partner, Jon Pounds, and with 65 volunteers. Rather than trying to get people to paint the same, we tried to let different parts be in different styles. We wanted the evidence of different hands, different strokes, be part of the meaning of the piece.
As I’ve continued in murals, I’ve gotten away from that. Marcus, I think that you and I got really good at painting so that people couldn’t tell our styles apart within a mural. When we work together again, I hope we can emphasize individuality and difference. You’ve been doing some beautiful things with value and flesh tones on faces and I’ve been pushing even further the use of separate individual strokes of high chroma color. I’d like to see these two styles co-exist and interact on a mural.
Marcus: Yes, that’s been done by Mitchell Caton and Calvin Jones in the early eighties. If you know their two separate styles, it’s kind of amazing to see how they just put the two styles together and the murals flow. It is so unified that it looks as though one artist is utilizing intensive patterning and also his ability to paint volumetrically and realistically. In reality, it is the style of two different artists fused together into an aesthetic whole.
That’s a whole other way of collaborating. You don’t meet in the middle; you just bring both people's strengths to the table. It would be interesting to expand that even more.
Olivia: In Chicago, through Chicago Public Art Group, the emphasis of the mural movement has been on collaborations. This is in contrast to how the tradition has sometimes developed in other cities. We have emphasized the collaboration of the professional artist with the community, but also the equal collaborations of professional artists with each other. Our system has not been one of masters and apprentices. We tend to design projects which allow for the aesthetic input and energy of more than one professional artist. How do you all see the significance of this?
Marcus: Outside of this culture, working collaboratively wouldn’t be such an different way of doing things. I saw a TV show on Bali in which five guys were sitting there working on one painting. The painting was only five feet by four feet or so. They were in a studio overlooking the beautiful terraces of Bali and they were all sitting quietly, painting, working on one image. A few feet away there was a guy working on a painting by himself. Now they were all taking their time painting there was no obvious rush and they interviewed these artists and the five said, “Well, you know, he’s the odd man out. He refuses to work over here with us. He wants to work by himself.” From that cultural view, that kind of individualism was odd. They have ways of coming together on some levels that are impossible or unheard of here. Here it is an everybody-out-for-themselves, individualistic society.
I think the fact that we’ve been able to do that kind of collaboration under this society is phenomenal. It’s a role model. People are surprised when they find we have two or three artists working on a project. How do you do that? The assumption they have is that the artist is supposed to have a monstrous ego; we are temperamental; we sit all day under the tree and wait for the coconut to fall off while we contemplate our latest crazy scheme.
It’s a role model for the community when they see two or three artists, the last people they can imagine being able to work together, be able to subjugate their egos and their own selfish intentions, and work together to make something lasting for the community.
Bea: It’s amazing how people just refuse to believe that this is possible. In the project I am working on now, people keep looking for the person in charge. Who is the “real” artist? To work collaboratively on a project, you have to learn to give up a little bit of yourself in order to open yourself up to new possibilities.
Olivia: Collaboration is a powerful image. It’s perhaps especially important in a city like Chicago, which is one of the most racially divided cities in the world.
It’s important for a neighborhood to see multi-racial teams of artists working together, having differences, getting mad at each other, dealing with it and going on with their mutual work. It’s important to see the artists figuring out how to stay in dialogue and make something beautiful and positive happen. The mural making process is a metaphor for a functional society.
Marcus: Cultural differences and political disagreements are enough to start a bloody war. Here we have artists of different cultures coming together to work in the area of culture, an area that is usually a bone of contention between peoples. It’s definitely a role model.
In 1988, when we were doing the Roseland Pullman mural with 102 people we had Latinos, Blacks, and Whites actually working together on a mural on an underpass that divided and connected two neighborhoods. That summer in the news media everyday they kept pumping the issue about Chicago being racially polarized and we had over a hundred people working together on a project in peace and harmony.
Olivia: I think that since the late eighties, many muralists have done a good job of examining and extending the legacy of collaboration and community involvement. The muralists have understood for many years that meaning is created by an interaction between the artist and the audience. The conventional artworld under the influence of continental theory is now understanding that the work is a co-creation of the receiver and the sender and has consequently become increasingly interested in community-based work.
When many of those early murals were created, artists weren’t actually going out and having community meetings on what the content of the murals should be. The artists were a part of the same political movements and they felt,and were, so in touch that they could sensitively and accurately reflect the concerns of the people, the tone of the times.
As the times changed and some of the clear directions of the seventies were replaced by increasingly complex community agendas, new generations of muralists had to develop new strategies stimulating community discourse. We became more conscious of strategies of collaboration and consensus decision making. The process of the making of a mural is itself is a representation of a participatory democratic society.
I have been thinking about how to push this process even further. I think we are again at a point of a deep rethinking of our practice. A great deal of contemporary theory examines the hidden complexities of making representations. How conscious are we of strategies of representation in our mural work?
One of the issues muralists face is being called upon to represent “the people.” Often this means representing a multi-racial neighborhood or nation. These representations of collective difference can be dismissed as being like Bennetton ads. I’m sure you’ve both heard me argue that there wouldn’t be Bennetton type ads if there hadn’t been a contemporary mural movement. Despite the dangers of abuse and misrepresentation, of false images of a happy multi-racial society, I think we must sometimes risk making those utopian images. I believe as artists we have a responsibility to not only critique, but to create proactive future visions.
Bea: Examining community mural making closely brings up a lot of questions. When you make a mural, you are doing more than representing the community, the representation itself is what marks what the community is, what is included in the collective. What you represent is where the parameters are drawn, what you leave out is outside the definition. That’s one of the strange powers of such a large work. A power I sometimes don’t particularly want.
Collectives and communities are organic, fluid things. A particular geographic section of the city might be a community, but within it there are communities that are not geographic at all, that extend beyond geography, like gay and Lesbian communities or some political communities. These communities may not be welcomed at the community center because it is sponsored by people who are excluding them. It’s problematic that we rely so heavily on geography. If our job is reduced to only talking about community in racial terms and other collective identities are left out, this devalues them in some way.
Olivia: When I did the mural, Where We Come From...Where We Are Going, I was doing was trying to look at that question, trying to think about what it means to constitute ourselves as a community. Just because people live in geographic proximity are they functioning as a community? One of the things that became clear to me in doing that mural and interviewing people and talking to them, was that people can actually exist in the same urban space and not communicate. What makes a community is discourse and sometimes that discourse is not happening. Since then I’ve been increasingly interested in what are the possibilities of using a mural to draw more people into the discourse or even calling attention specifically to who is not in the conversation.
Marcus: I think about it from an entirely different angle. I don’t see it as being problematic because if you work with the community the way many of us have, it is virtually impossible to come up with an image that is not reflective of the lifeblood of that people. Because you are dealing with their input from the foundation you lay on that project and one way or another, you connect. It may be a more profound engagement with the people than only dealing with their verbal input.
Of course, you can’t please all the people all the time, but once you have that open door policy to the community and belong as member of the community, I haven't experienced any problems with creating images that speak to people. Now they may not like everything, but it creates something that speaks to them, that they can understand. It is something that has something valuable to say for that community. because it is a product of the collective will, power, and vision of the community.
Bea: The organizations that we often work with are schools and community centers. This is not a pure representation of the community around you; it’s funneled through a bureaucracy that has specific needs and is oriented toward a particular liberal politics that is not necessarily truly progressive. They are not trying to push the envelope of inclusion.
Again I think of the obvious example of the gay and lesbian community. They are not represented in the community center as gays and lesbian. We are not going to connect with them there. Their history will not be documented through the “normal” channels. We need to work with more organizations that are not geographically based and determined.
Olivia: That’s an interesting problem for the medium because murals are by their very nature territorial. One of the things that is wonderful about murals is that they claim public space. I think one can argue that in some ways murals are one of the few things that are continuing to reinvent public space at a time when there is an increasing privatization of public space
and public lands. Billboard space is sold, the space along roadways is sold. Certainly in the U.S, there is an increasing colonization of anything which is in the public domain. So it’s is interesting to think what it means to represent non-geographical community in a medium so heavily geared toward physically reclaiming territory of public consciousness. It’s a contradiction, but one which I think would be interesting and fruitful to explore.
Beatriz, I know you've been putting a lot of time into rethinking the mural tradition. On your project this summer, you set out to push into new conceptual territory in murals. How’s it coming?
Bea: Well, I found out that it is harder to do it, than to talk about it. Tim Portlock and I are working with 10 teenagers on a large outdoor mural project. A lot of our discussion and design is focused on exploring the meaning of being a collective. We’re exploring the commonalities and differences amongst the kids and between the artists and the kids. Rather than bringing those differences to a common denominator, we could allow those differences to all live on the wall. The idea is that if we disagree with someone, instead of trying to find consensus somewhere in the middle, we put both ideas on the wall and let them interact.
I feel like right now, we’re painting a particularly ugly mural.
Bea: Well, in order to really experiment on a wall, we need to do some things that you are not used to seeing on a wall. That look really odd.
Olivia: So it’s consciously ugly?
Bea: I don’t think people will walk up to it and see “ugly.” Tim and I are trying to achieve some of the things we’ve been talking about recently, like having fragmented space. Yet instinctively you go “whoosh” with the brush and harmonize the space because that’s the thing that makes sense and that your eye is used to seeing on the wall. We really wanted create fragmented space as part of the meaning of the piece and we’re doing it. We have to tolerate the mural looking ugly for a while until it comes together.
Marcus: Are you talking about the mural being permanently ugly or just until the wall is finished?
Bea: Probably some of both! Formally we are trying to keep things from flowing together. We’re trying to maintain visual discontinuity. We’ve also tried to stay far away from images we are used to seeing in murals, even if they are images we like.
We asked the students to draw from their experiences. Some drew fictional stories, We didn’t show them any murals as we got started because Tim and I knew we had seen many murals and been influenced by them. We were putting our hope for newness to come from the ideas of kids who hadn’t seen many murals.
Olivia: You were hoping they would have a naive authenticity?
Bea: No, not being familiar with murals doesn't mean they're naive, but being used to a different kind of art making--like comic books. Maybe that’s a place they draw a narrative from. We wanted to know what drawing styles they are attracted to as opposed to the one’s we are used to dealing with. We looked at a lot of comic books.
Olivia: Has that showed up in the design of the mural?
Bea: Yes, many figures in the mural have exaggerated features and bodies--the teens were attracted to that. It gave them a way they could bring images up in sharp and graphic manner without being threatened by realism. But this strategy of not looking at previous murals didn’t always work. The students wanted to see a lot of murals to see what the possibilities were--without that it was difficult to get a sense of scale.
Olivia: From what I’ve seen of the project it looks fresh and interesting and it does seem to throw down a challenge to all of us to rethink our strategies. I especially like that you include questions about the role of public art within the mural. It generates its own debate about aesthetic criteria.
Bea: My ideal mural project now is to find a wall and then to experiment aesthetically with the who and how of representing the surrounding collective.
Marcus: How would you organize something like that? Would you drag people in and say “Hey, we need your story here in this mural?”
Bea: I think you’d have to. People who have never seen their themes or politics represented in murals wouldn’t necessarily think to approach such a project. On the 53rd Street mural, it was very hard to get some sort of representation of the gay and lesbian communities. The artists couldn’t agree on how to handle this. Yet Hyde Park has one of the largest queer communities in all of Chicago. It would have seemed so unfair and untruthful to omit their presence in the mural.
Marcus: What were the arguments that you had amongst the three artists?
Bea: There was concern and a lack of comfort, a fear that a large image on the wall would be too confrontational, more than some people would want to deal with.
Olivia: In a practical sense, how would you depict a person being gay? Do you write “This person is gay !” on his or her shirt?” Back in 1987 when Pounds and I did the Mifflin Mural which shows many different people coming together to the feast, the design group decided that they wanted to have one of the people be a gay man. We ran into the problem of stereotyping--how do we represent without falling back on stereotypes?
Bea: Well that suggests that the way you deal with representing gayness is not in terms of realism because then you have to deal with what a gay man looks like. In the mural we’re working on now there is a huge rib cage where we are painting diagrams of the things that you are not supposed to see in the dominant culture and one of the diagrams is of two men kissing. In the part where there are a lot of different wheels and machinery that turn inside a head, there are two wheels and there is a cop chasing the wheel that has this spray paint guy on it. If we were doing a mural with realistic figures, it would be very hard to get away with painting a cop chasing a guy with a spray paint can.
Olivia: Yes, in the Mifflin Mural in 1987, we did a cop beating up a stalk of broccoli. I know that sounds really odd, but people at the Coop wanted to remember the violence of the police against the anti-war Coop community, but they didn’t want it to dominate or overwhelm the other images. How do you make authentic representations without dragging down peoples’ spirits as they encounter these images on a daily basis?
Bea: There are two different issues. One is how do you deal with something which is part of the history of the community, that is painful for the community, that points out contradictions, and that represents problems, trouble, things like violence of one part of the community against the other. The other is how to depict something that is, but should not be, shocking. The fact that someone would find it offensive is offensive in itself. These are two different things
Olivia: What is allowed to be represented? There is a repression of negativity, but also a repression of difference.
Bea: Right and those are the same thing. I don’t feel that something that should not be shocking should have to be dealt with as if it it's shocking. The assumption should be that it is not shocking. They are two different things.
Olivia: I know what you mean, but I have to honestly say that I think it may require special strategies, new kinds of thought to get people to deal with things they find controversial in an open way. I do believe that the strategy of shock is often an empty strategy in terms of actually creating change in people.
Bea: I disagree with that. There are some things that shouldn't be considered shocking. That’s offensive in itself.
Olivia: I’m not saying that the fact that some things are considered shocking isn’t offensive, I’m saying that shocking isn’t necessarily politically efficacious.
Bea: It’s the difference between talking diplomatically with someone and getting really angry and saying this conversation doesn’t even need to happen.
Olivia: When you explain it that way, I do have some agreement. I’m not one to say that people shouldn’t express themselves in an angry way if that’s how they feel, if that’s what needs to be said. I struggle with this in my life--what is the balance between passionately expressing oneself, witnessing for one’s beliefs and experiences and thinking and expressing strategically? I think all of us here want to do more than “express ourselves.” We want to make change. How do we as artists negotiate the territory of sharp differences? How do we reach people’s hearts and minds?
Talking about building acceptance of gay people, I think that the Names Project, the quilt, is amazing in this regard. It is about the many people who have been effected by AIDS and often it is clear that various panels are tributes to gay men from loving and beloved life partners. I don’t know anybody who sees that project who doesn't come away from it with a terrific sense of loss and of being touched at people’s expressions of loss and love. It’s interesting the way the Names people positioned themselves as an American community artform. It’s interesting how it overcomes what might be some people’s aversion to homosexuality and draws people into the story of loss and grief.
Bea: Well, maybe shocking isn’t necessarily politically efficacious, but if instead of painting insulting period pieces on Africans, Tainos, and Spaniards lovingly holding hands, the muralists of Puerto Rico had been plastering the walls with images of independentistas being dragged off to jail, or perhaps a period piece of the suppressions of revolts, or hey, maybe a famous writer and activist like Luisa Capetillo kissing her girlfriend, things might have been different. Yes, many people would’ve been shocked. Some would have been shocked at the facts that those images portrayed, and some might have had one of those “shock of sensibilities” episodes that were so popular around the turn of the century, and some, maybe the independentistas and the lesbians who felt oppressed by the world who found them shocking and unsuitable for public viewing might not have been shocked at all. Then they might have looked around to see who was left standing and who was passed out on the ground from the shock and this might have been quite informative.
Now, I think that loss and grief are emotions that can coalesce people who might not normally come together, but not all situations can be expressed through loss and grief. Maybe the Names quilt is an event that is easy for people to empathize with because the people are already dead. They’re not people living with HIV; they’re not threatening; they’re not demanding.
I think there are many ways of representing “difficult” subjects in a mural. There are many different kinds of strategies that we can use. Some of them appeal through a common sense of loss, others through shock, humor, or at other times just by being clever and biting. I think the narrative realism of a lot of murals is a very difficult genre in which to, not just represent or illustrate, but have a visual dialogue that takes on the diversity within the community that is not visual, like politics, like being queer. It is a challenge to speak and image in metaphors, but this what making the invisible visible requires.
In your mural Where We Come From..., for example, you drew out the specific voices of the community directly onto the wall. The text of the piece floating over the images really drives home the idea that you were talking about earlier that people are not necessarily engaging each other in dialogue. The mural then becomes the place that holds many of those unspoken desires.
Sometimes I think that a lot of the really challenging ideas have a better chance of existing in public space if they are temporary pieces which, as you were saying, was how you got into making public art in the first place.
Olivia: I do think that people are more willing to take risks in a piece which is not permanent. When I did the banners dealing with racism on the southwest side, I deliberately created a temporary project because I thought it would make people more willing to get into deeper issues.
Marcus: Right, you’re doing without the technical problems of working out a big artistic project. That wouldn’t fit for that project.
Olivia: People might be willing to talk abut things that are more conflicted, edgy and difficult if they know it’s not going to be permanently there on the wall. Something that gets seen and understood and then can fade way. Who wants to be depicted on a wall as someone who was a racist who didn’t want Martin Luther King in Marquette Park? But people were willing to discuss such things for inclusion in a form that was public, but not permanent. On the other hand, I am not willing to give up the possibilities for permanent public art for people.
Marcus: I definitely am not.
Olivia: I don’t want to deconstruct ourselves into not having any monuments.
Bea: I’m not so sure I like monuments.
Olivia: I’m interested in the possibility of creating heteroglossic monuments. Monuments that are multi-voiced as opposed to monological. Is it necessarily true that things which are permanent are fascistic? Do they necessarily have that authoritarian, single, averaging tone? Or is possible to create a permanent multi-vocal dialogical form? It represents not everything averaged into one, but a snapshot of a moment in the community. You see positive things and also the tensions and the differences. You see the moment not as inevitable and immutable, but as the creation of the current discourse.
That brings up a fantasy for a mural I’ve been having. It’s based on the things you’ve been talking about, Bea. We’d do a mural and leave spaces in the design. The project would be planned for a a two or three year period. In the second year you or somebody else would come back and lead another team. We would talk to people, get their insights and criticisms and then design and add new parts to the mural. The mural would be constructed as a response to itself over time.
Bea: Marcus, I know you take the responsibility of being a muralist seriously. What have you been thinking about these issues lately? How do you conceive of this responsibility of stretching the consciousness of the community?
Marcus: I’m coming from a whole other time and space. To me, an artist is like a priest. This is for me, I’m not saying this for all artists. Coming from the African cultural standpoint, the artist is a spiritual person, like a medicine man. So if you are going to be spiritual force, there is a big responsibility that comes with that and you’ve got to live it. You can’t just live it in the studio. You can’t just live this type of work and be a messy, immoral person in your personal life.
One thing I've learned is that one reality doesn’t cut if for the whole of humanity. So this is why I’m putting forth that I’m coming from from my ancestral tradition. It’s a big world and lots of things are going on. I’m not concerned with anything else; I have my sole purpose and focus. I’m not necessarily knocking it, but I’m not interested in it. If you are in that priestly state or trying to be, things become less of an issue because you learn to take yourself out of it and just be a tool and a vessel. Then you don’t have to do as much thinking and just be about doing what is necessary.
A good person, a priestly person deals with healing ailments. One type of art work I appreciate is work which deals with societies’ direction and flow and deals with it in a cohesive way for making a better life. This has its own rewards. There are going to be people that agree and don’t agree with your images. There are going to be different things that you personally go in and out of liking, but when you come from that standpoint of being committed to spirit and healing, it alleviates a lot of problems and it helps you to be successful in your original objectives. Everything has to have a purpose and a time and a place.
I see the public art movement and murals as fitting in with this emerging consciousness. A lot of people make up the movement and you can see the different stages of maturity that we are all going into. Let’s hope we are maturing in the business of making this artwork. I do believe that one thing we have in common is that everybody is concerned with making a contribution to others, to the collective society.
You asked about strategies, Olivia. In this movement there is already one strategy built into what we do. And that strategy is that we consult--consult the community. By doing this, you already get in tune to what the needs are. You can share visions with the people. You’re not screaming the message you believe to be right at somebody. Not everybody is going to agree, but at least you consulted. You have a working knowledge of the community. If you consult, you’ll get better. Your working knowledge will grow. The vision may not come from you; it may come from somebody else and then you being the artist can actually make it, complete the vision, bring it to a place where it can be shared by others.
I think you have to be reflective of the community, but also directive. We're not out here just to put anything up on the wall. You have to be a reflector, but you have to have some kind of vision, some type of crusade.
Olivia: A moral, political, or spiritual vision?
Marcus: I hope the artist has all three, that would be the best, but if you’ve only got one, that’s cool too.
Download a printable version of this chapter: