Krakow, Poland. To me, this was always a place from a faraway time, the city where my great-grandfather, Harry Baum, had been born, back when Poland was divided up between three regional powers. It was the setting for unimaginable horrors during the Second World War, then became part of the Soviet sphere for decades. But upon arrival, I found that Krakow has been transformed into a modern, upbeat urban center, known for its art scene and vibrant culture. I was mesmerized walking along the streets of the old city center, exploring the former Jewish quarter and Wawel Castle.
The setting of our new community mural project was far from this picturesque center in a large area known as Nowa Huta, famous for its rough, gritty working-class vibe and Soviet-style block apartments centered around an old steel mill. On the first day, I checked out our blank canvas, the outside wall of a community center, where I was greeted by our excellent host: a friendly, excited guy named Łukasz who would later show me around the city. The wall was large and windowless, with a staircase right in the middle, leading to a door. Perfect for a mural! I was joined by employees from the local Park Inn hotel for the third installment of the 2016 Adding Color to Lives youth arts series. Together, we would work with a group of teenagers from two local group homes, who would have the opportunity to design and paint their own work of public art, a contribution to their city’s cultural fabric. What a responsibility!
As expected, they started out a bit shy and reserved, so we broke out the games and team-building activities on day 1. Unlike many Polish teens, who are proficient in English after years of study, this group had not had many educational opportunities and had a tough time with the language. Luckily, I had a team of amazing local Park Inn staff members, who ensured that we could all communicate. Before long, we were laughing, getting to know each other and brainstorming about the images, themes and messages that would be included in our mural. By the end of the first session, we had decided to create a city on the back of a dragon, one of Krakow’s most iconic mythological characters who, legend has it, still lives in a lair under Wawel castle. Also featured would be a trumpet player in reference to one of the city’s most famous traditions: every hour on the hour, a trumpeter plays a song from the window of St. Mary’s church in remembrance of the time may centuries ago when, with the Tatar invasion closing in on the city, a musician played his trumpet to warn the citizens. He was promptly shot with an arrow by the invaders, but his bravery was never forgotten.
For five days we created our fantasy world, one that reflected the bright future that each young participant was striving for, so different from the lives they had led up until now. While they each had a unique story, all included a common element: that of being taken away from their families and sent to live in a group home. The chaotic cycle of abuse, violence and dysfunction was one that every kid wanted desperately to escape from. To this end, we set out on a mission to envision what an alternative future would be, knowing that one must imagine it before being able to make this dream a reality. In our city, each participant painted themselves as they hoped to be one day be: as a hair stylist, an athlete, a chef, a world explorer. They lived in stable homes surrounded by family members with whom they had positive, healthy relationships.
In this city of dreams on the back of a dragon, they were able to take control of their lives and construct their own community. They painted themselves and their loved ones surrounded by the icons and cultural figures that they held dear. These included the local steel mill and St. Mary’s church. There was also the mythological dragon-slaying peasant boy, who was the only one clever enough to trick the dragon into eating a sheep that he had filled with sulfur, leading to the dragon’s demise. And, of course, there was Krakow’s beloved local dog Dzok, who is famous for waiting for months in the place where his master had died in an act of loyalty that so moved the city that they erected a statue in his honor after he died.
Each day I introduced new subject matter and activities so as to keep the teens engaged. The biggest hit was the spray paint (no surprise there!). Each participant carved their own unique stencil, which they then sprayed onto the wall. Once that was completed, they discovered that they could also decorate their clothes using the stencils. One girl, Paulina, got especially excited by this, and arrived on the last day with many articles of her clothing and stencils she had made at her group home, ready to custom design her own shirts and pants with spray paint. I ended up being allowed to give her some spray paint to take home, under the watchful eye of her staff member (I went over safety with them first) so that she could continue to design clothing. Another girl, Sonia, who had initially been shy, ended up being one of the most talented and motivated painters on the mural! The lone boy of the group, Darek, expressed in our post-project assessment that his favorite part was having the opportunity to interact in English. As these examples demonstrate, there is something for everyone to get out of the experience.
On the final day, we had a giant celebration in which the entire community came out to see the completed mural. The proud teens couldn’t believe what they had achieved! There were refreshments, performances and speeches, and congratulations all around. I spoke to Ula, the Park Inn in Krakow manager, who told me the plan for the continuation of the new relationship that the hotel had with the kids. The hotel would begin mentoring all of the kids at the group home, inviting them to BBQs and other events to meet and interact with their staff. They had developed custom-designed plans for each individual teen. Two of them who are interested in becoming chefs will be invited to participate in internships with the Park Inn restaurant chef to learn the trade, and they are hoping to be able to hire them as cooks after that. Another teen who is interested in computers will intern with the hotel IT specialist. One very bright girl, Emilka, is interested in psychology and is a big fan of a particular author whose book inspired her in this field. They have secured her an opportunity to attend an expensive conference—with all fees waved—with that same author, where she’ll have a meeting with him. After that, they have further plans to support this direction for her. I was moved that the hotel had turned the relationships formed during the mural project into an incredible, life-changing program for these kids.
Special thanks to Sven, Magda, Ula, our awesome volunteer Lilly and everyone at Park Inn who made this incredible experience possible! Thanks also to Łukasz and his wife Elżbieta, 101 Murali, the staff at the group homes and, last but not least, all the amazingly talented and hardworking young participants! For more info on the Adding Color to Lives program with Park Inn, visit https://www.parkinn.com/addingcolor