World Refugees Paint Their Journey

Stuttgart pano mural low res

In September, 2017, I headed to Stuttgart, Germany, where a huge influx of migrants and refugees had recently arrived, leading to a bitter divide in the country in whether to embrace or reject these newcomers. I joined forces with local youth and refugee organizations and the Park Inn by Radisson hotel to lead a mural project that highlighted this important issue. This was the latest in our Adding Color to Lives series.

Stuttgart low res-7We had an amazing group! They were a bit older than usual, in their late teens to early twenties, which meant that they were mature and well behaved, and their energy was calm and focused. There were about 18 all together, and they hailed from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Gambia, Ghana, the Dominican Republic, and Germany. What a mix! All spoke at least basic German and were therefore able to communicate amongst themselves, but I noticed that they often split up into language cliques. Many spoke various levels of English, though some spoke none, which was challenging for me. Luckily, I was able to practice my terrible-but-slowly-getting-better Arabic, and spoke Spanish to the Dominican girl, Yary. Quite a few had come over since the big migrant wave of two years ago, entering Italy before making their way to Germany, where they were struggling to learn a new language and culture, find work, and deal with the traumas of war and displacement.

As expected, language and ethnic diversity were challenges at first, but I was happy to see friendships between groups being made over the course of the week. They worked together on different sections, often helping one another out, and bonded as they did so. By the end, there was a great energy to the group, and they were very excited and proud of the final mural.

Stuttgart low res-41The Mural: In the workshop, the youth focused on the theme of “journeys” for the mural composition. We were careful to include symbolic life journeys as well as migrations, as the 5 German-born participants hadn’t made a physical journey but had still been through their own struggles. As the symbolic road weaves its way across the wall, there are three faces: that of an elder, a youth (modeled after a participant) and a baby (which I modeled after Amara, my newborn daughter), representing various phases of the life journey. The central image is that of two hands turning the pages of a book, alluding to the narrative that is unfolding in all of our lives.

Stuttgart low res-37We had a long and high wall, so there was plenty of room for their content. On one side of the symbolic road, they painted about leaving their homelands and experiencing various challenges and suffering. An Afghani participant, Tamim, painted the Kabul Airport, the last place that he saw of his homeland before leaving 2 years ago. Mohammed from Iran painted a sign along the road pointing back to “slavery” and forward to “freedom.” One young man from Gambia, Nuha, painted a mango hanging from a tree with a hand reaching for it. He explained that in his country, there was often so little to eat that mangoes were all they could find. Lamin, another Gambian, came up with one of the main images of the left side; a truck filled with people heading through the desert to escape conflict and poverty, which was his personal experience. The hotel manager, Norbert, an East German, got involved by painting the Berlin Wall.

Stuttgart low res-46As the road moves to the right, their artwork focuses on representing their current situations and, further along, their goals for what they’d like to see as their journey continues. These included personal objectives, such as family and career goals, as well as what they envision for their country or the world. For example, one Iraqi young man, Abdullah, painted a mosque and a church next to one another to show that he wanted different religions to peacefully coexist in Europe and the Middle East. Yari, the Dominican girl, dreamed of traveling the world one day, and therefore painted the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben and New York City. Three German girls who were very passionate about art– Anika, Michaela and Anisa– created images of healthy families, flying balloons to show hope, space travel to symbolize shooting for one’s dreams, and a figure reading to allude to education and story-telling. The Ghanaian, Jonathan, created images of music and dancing to show joyful celebration and cultural heritage.

Challenges and Successes: The wall was very high, but luckily the hotel rented a lift, which helped immensely. On one of the final evenings, after everyone had left except me, I was up on the lift working on a top area. A group of football hooligans returning from a match at the nearby stadium decided that it would be funny to enter the cab of the truck and turn off the engine, making it impossible for me to come down on the lift. They ran off laughing and cursing me. I was so annoyed! I was able to climb down and turned it back on, but in order to make the lift come back down I needed someone to put their foot on a specific button on the truck while I climbed back up and realigned it. (I know, it sounds confusing, but that’s the way this lift worked– it basically becomes stuck if you turn it off and back on again, and you need two people to fix it.) Luckily, a nice couple came by (also football fans, but apparently not of the hooligan variety) and complimented our work. I thanked them and asked for their help fixing the lift, which they happily did, and I was able to climb up and make the lift work again while they pressed the button down below. Phew!

Stuttgart low res-21Another challenge, as is the case with many large-scale, one-week projects, was completing it in time without collapsing from exhaustion. I ended up working 12 and 13-hour days, and they brought out lights so I could paint past dark, after the kids had left. Luckily Sven from the hotel’s Responsible Business department was a huge help making sure everything went smoothly.

On the last day, they stood in front of community members and many Park Inn employees, who presented them with gifts and applauded their contribution to the city. There was food, music and plenty of photos taken. I was moved when some of the youth gave me gifts that they had collectively purchased, including baby clothes for my daughter, Amara, and chocolates, as well as a drawing and a letter of appreciation. Thanks to everyone Sven, everyone at the hotel and the local organizations, and the youth participants for all their inspiring images and hard work!

Syrian Refugee Youth Projects

Check out more Joel’s Syrian refugee youth projects here


Art & Sustainability in the Dominican Republic



The Rafey barrio of Santiago, in the Dominican Republic, is a neglected community that is home to the largest trash dump in the city. Max Frieder and I, both co-directors of the organization Artolution, arrived in Rafey in April to facilitate a multi-media public art project in partnership with 3 Santiago artists, a group of local teenagers from the local San Pedro Nolasco High School, and the organizations Centro León and Meridian International Center. We all met on the first day for the introductory workshop, in which we explored important issues in the lives of the youth and environmental problems affecting the community. We got to know one another through activities and games, and had a group discussion about the imagery and themes we would paint in our mural. Our young participants were full of energy and ideas, and took their responsibility seriously to design a public work of art that reflected their perspectives, opinions, and identity. By the end of the day, after an intensive sketching session, we put everyone’s ideas together into one cohesive design. We were ready to implement our vision!

Santiago_DR_-28Given the environmental degradation in the country and the vital issues related to trash in Rafey, we chose to include in our mural a sculpture made entirely of repurposed trash from the dump and from the streets of the community. On the morning of the second day, our crew of students and artists visited the Rafey trash dump to collect material. It’s a sprawling sea of trash with many trash pickers, known here as busos, wading through filth each day in order to separate the various types of recyclables. It was an intense experience for all of us wading into what appears to be an endless garbage city, stretching on as far as the eye can see. Many of the teens remarked that they had never really thought about all the waste that they created; where it goes and who must sort through it. We chatted with several busos, who made me realize how vital their job is in society, and how unfair it is that they are not given the respect they deserve, resigned to live in shanties on the side of the dump.

Santiago_DR_-24Upon arrival at our wall, we realized how enormous it was. It was the outside wall of the school, facing a prison on the other side of the street. We got to work painting our mural, a process that took two weeks under intense Caribbean sun, sudden torrential downpours, and joyous moments of creativity and human connection.  Our sculpture, known as the “boatstrument,” or “barcostrumento,” was integrated into the overall mural, and functioned as a percussion instrument, complete with drum sticks attached by wires. Everyone had a blast creating it, and it will now live on in the community as a permanent interactive work of art.

Santiago_DR_-22We had the pleasure of being accompanied by Dominican filmmaker Jean Carlos Ramirez, who created several videos over the course of the project. At the closing ceremony, the youth reacted with excitement as a short documentary was screened featuring them. It was the first time that they experienced adults valuing something that they had created and heaping praise on them for their exceptional work. Representatives from the US Embassy in Santo Domingo who sponsored the project, spoke at the event, as did those from Meridian and Centro León. Max and I congratulated the youth, reminding them that they can continue to accomplish big things in life if they work hard and join together with their peers to achieve positive change. We all headed out to view our complete mural and have one last jam session, led by our partner artists and percussionist, D-Troya Lion. As we said our good-byes to our new friends, we were proud of everyone’s accomplishments, though sad that our time together was coming to an end. Muchas gracias to everyone at Meridian, Centro León, the US Embassy, the San Pedro Nolasco School, the local artists and all the incredible students for making this project such a success!


California Communities Stand Strong with Messages of Inclusion!

californiaedits-2californiaedits-37Since the presidential campaign, fear and anxiety have been especially high in the Central Valley of California’s largely immigrant agricultural communities, who are responsible for growing two thirds of the nation’s produce. This diverse region has large numbers of Mexican immigrants and migrant workers as well as Mexican-Americans whose families have been here since California was part of Mexico. There are undocumented and documented, Punjabis and Portuguese, white working class and Hmong refugees from Laos, all striving to succeed and give their children a better life than they had. In other words, this often forgotten but significant region of the country represents what makes America such a unique and dynamic country that has room for everyone and is stronger for it, an ideal that is currently under attack.

californiaedits-35I arrived here in late November to facilitate a series of community-based mural projects in partnership with artist Professor Richard Gomez of the University of California, Merced, supported by the university and local public school districts in the towns of Planada and Livingston. Richard and I had been roommates years ago when we lived in San Francisco’s Mission District, but had lost touch once we both moved away, a common phenomenon in those pre-Facebook days. We reconnected after discovering that we were both involved in the world of social and community-based art, leading to this collaborate. For three weeks we led workshops with local youth and worked side-by-side with many incredible community members, students and teachers to design and paint 6 public murals.

californiaedits-20Our workshops included discussions about what most concerned community members, including a lack of employment and educational opportunities, gang violence and other social issues. Also, there was a sense that much of the nation had turned against immigrants and Latinos, which was upsetting to many who felt just as American as anyone else and worked hard to contribute to society. These themes informed the designs for the murals, as did that which gave people pride: their identity as agricultural workers, their strong heritage and the individuals and families that made up these tight-knit communities. Together, we brainstormed and created sketches on paper, leading to cohesive designs that included everyone’s ideas. Over three weeks, dozens participated in the painting of these murals, contributing to the cultural fabric of their communities.

californiaedits-16In both Planada and Livingston, we had a blast painting together, as people of all ages and walks of life came together to contribute their ideas and creativity. They reflected on their visions for the future, what they love about their communities and what they are striving for. Through this collaborative process, many new connections were formed and residents were pleasantly surprised at what they could accomplish together. Richard and I were received with warm hospitality, and were invited by several local families to dinner in their homes.

californiaedits-32There were many incredible people who came together to make this initiative an overwhelming success, and it was beautiful to see everyone unite on a common cause. A huge thank you to everyone who supported this unforgettable process: Alex Garcia, our community project coordinator whose deep roots in the community and relationships with local youth was invaluable; our two awesome project assistants, UC students Clarissa and Perla, who have been learning the ins and outs of community-based public art; Planada Superintendent Jose Gonzalez; local artist Ruben Sanchez; high school student and future art educator Austin Smith; the dynamic duo Alex and Lucy; Tony Garcia and his family; Jose and Maria Morales; “Los Dos Juanes;” Tere; Jacob; Elias; Polino; Planada Principal Mr. Nava and Livingston Principal Mr. Arteaga (Mr. Arte!); Andres Zamora; all the amazing teachers and administrators at Planada and Livingston elementary schools; and, of course, all the hardworking students and community members who contributed their creativity to the artwork! Thanks to our institutional partners, UC Merced and the Planada and Livingston school districts, who made these projects possible. And, last but not least, a giant thank you to Professor Richard Gomez, who was an incredible partner over the course of this experience, and his wife Cely and three adorable kids for their hospitality, as they welcomed me into their home and put up with me for three weeks! Through the non-profit organization I co-direct, Artolution, we are planning further projects in the region with Richard, with the long-term goal of developing ongoing and sustainable community-based public art programming in the Central Valley.

Dreams & Superpowers: A South African Story


img_4550In late September, I headed to South Africa to facilitate a community mural project at an orphanage in Johannesburg. My wife and frequent collaborator, CJ, joined me as the project manager and co-facilitator. This was the last of a series of four projects in 2016 for the Adding Color to Lives youth arts initiative in four countries, a partnership with Park Inn hotels in which hotel employees participate with local youth in challenging situations in order to initiate mentorships that will continue once the mural projects are complete. This concept is one that underscores all my work and that of the organization that I co-director, Artolution; that community-based public art is a tool that can build powerful positive connections between youth and their community and begin the process of healing the affects of trauma, conflict and social exclusion.

img_4303On the day of the first workshop, CJ and I were excited to meet the children and teens from the 5Cees orphanage who were to work with us for the next week. They arrived a bit shy and unsure of what to expect, but soon began to open up about their ideas for our mural design. We were joined by a group of student volunteers from the Sophie Kanza Foundation, who supported the participants as they went through the process of turning their ideas and sketches into a giant work of public art on the outside wall of their orphanage. Over the course of the week, the kids and local volunteers painted with us in a collaborative process as layer upon layer of the mural was created. We played music, laughed, and got to know one another as the artwork came to life. Each day, we began with team-building games and activities in which participants pondered critical questions regarding their community, their lives and their future. These explorations informed each section of our mural.

img_4400In one area, a giant woman is surrounded by clouds in which each child wrote their dreams for the future and their “superpowers;” or their special talents. As Johannesburg is a multi-ethnic and diverse city with immigrants from across the continent, we chose to paint a mosaic of cultural symbols and artwork in the afro of the main character, a statement of pan-African unity in the face of the xenophobia that has plagued South Africa in recent years. Her voice flows in yellows, oranges and violet tones, filled with portraits that participants made of people who support and inspire them. As the kids at 5Cees do not live with their families, we asked who fills those roles in their lives; perhaps a teacher, a staff member at the orphanage or friends. They were excited to paint homages to these special people and think of creative ways to represent them. They also created their future homes lives in the mural as a kind of public vision board. In the final section, youth answered the question “if you were an animal, what would you be and why?” They chose animals that represented characteristics that they identified with. Not only did they use brushes, but had the opportunity to make their own stencils of these animals and apply them with spray paint.

img_4288We greatly enjoyed the spirit of the 5Cees kids, an incredibly warm and talented group who taught us a great deal about their lives and culture. While they all spoke English, their native language is Zulu, and they found it hilarious to try to get us to pronounce words with the infamous clicking sounds. It was also a difficult place, one in which kids had lost their loved ones or whose families were unable to care for them. Over the course of the week, a mother came in to try to give away her baby, and another came with her 7-year old daughter, only to be turned away because the orphanage was at capacity. We became close with teens like Lindo, who had a passion for drawing but had no supplies, so we left him a sketch pad and pencils, and he’s been sending us drawings via WhatsApp ever since. An 18-year old girl named Margaret, who had been there since she was small, was a mother figure for smaller kids at the center and was an incredible singer. One of our most hard-working young artists, Napo, was interviewed for a feature about the project for South African news channel ANN7.

img_4557At the closing ceremony, we were sad to say goodbye to these amazing kids, but everyone was proud of what we had accomplished: a giant, colorful mural on the outside of the 5Cees center filled with hundreds of expressions of the kids working with Park Inn employees, volunteers from Sophie Kanza and local community residents of all ages. Park Inn staff barbecued in the South African tradition of braai and blasted music for everyone to dance to, with the event quickly turning into a festive block party, with the whole community coming out to celebrate. Many of us gave speeches and many of the kids performed with dances and songs. Thanks to everyone who made this project possible: the incredible 5Cees staff members, Khule and the Park Inn team, the Sophie Kanza volunteers, the whole community of Berea, my wife CJ and, of course, the amazing kids of 5Cees!

The Dream City on a Dragon



img_3706Krakow, 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.

actl_krakow_3542The 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!

img_0996As 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.

img_4238For 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.

img_4027In 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.

img_3922Each 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.

img_3981On 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

Diving into the Subconscious with Chris and Marc


img_1543For this year’s addition of the Welling Court Mural Festival in Queens, New York, I had the honor of collaborating with two friends who also happen to be incredible artists, Chris Soria and Marc Evan. We chose to depict an underwater scene that alludes to exploring the subconscious. My favorite thing about working with these guys is the way our styles flow seamlessly, as we understand and respect each other’s styles. As usual, Welling Court had an amazing block party vibe, relaxed and unpretentious, with artists, art-lovers and neighbors all admiring the dozens of new works being created and soaking up the early days of the New York summer. I can’t wait until next year!