Posted on January 31, 2017
Since 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.
I 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.
Our 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.
In 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.
There 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.
Posted on January 9, 2017
In 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.
On 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.
In 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.
We 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.
At 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!
Posted on November 21, 2016
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
Posted on October 29, 2016
For 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!
Posted on October 19, 2016
Where is Tallinn, Estonia? This was the question on my mind as I walked out of the plane and onto the tarmac, suddenly realizing that I was embarrassingly ignorant about the location for the latest installment of the Adding Color To Lives mural arts youth initiative. I mean, I had a vague notion that Estonia was one of those small, Eastern European country that was once in the Soviet sphere until it all came crashing down in the early ‘90’s, but that was about the extent of my knowledge. With a little help from my phone, I realized that I was right on the Baltic Sea, and would soon learn much more with the help of some upbeat, creative young people who I would have the privilege of working with.
Tallinn’s local Park Inn hotel had developed an awesome plan for a community outreach program in which its employees would participate in activities with youth from a local in-patient drug and alcohol rehabilitation center, bonding with them and forming positive relationships that would assist them in their recovery. As part of this innovative Responsible Business initiative, I was brought in to facilitate a community-based mural project with the kids as well as the hotel employees. On the first day, I arrived at the rehab center to a packed room of over 30 teenagers and even children as young as 11, none of whom knew what to expect. Many were shy or distracted, but the arts have an amazing ability to stimulate conversation and engage those who may otherwise remain uninterested.
By midway through the workshop, the kids were laughing and shouting as they competed in an intense game of Pictionary, followed by an engaging discussion that focused on our mission for the day: to decide on the imagery and subject matter for our mural, which we would begin the next day in a popular area of the city. It was big responsibility! After coming up with a long list of themes and then a focused sketching session, in which each participant drew their ideas on paper, we collectively created our mural design that included everyone’s input, but focused on one main scene. The inspiration for this central image was an epic battle between the mythological national hero Kalevipoeg and the demon, Sarvik, which would serve as a symbol of the battle that the young mural painters were fighting against their own demons.
The first thing one must know before working with youth in Estonia is that the country has a large Russian-speaking population along with the Estonian majority, and the two groups live quite separate lives in which they often can’t even speak the same language. At the rehab center, the Estonian kids spoke varying levels of English in addition to their native Estonian language, whereas the Russian-speaking kids often spoke no English and only a little Estonian. Luckily for me, in swooped Olga to save the day! Olga, who works for Park Inn and did much of the organizing of the project, spoke fluent Russian, Estonian and English, and would spend the project doing linguistic gymnastics as she constantly switched between the three languages in a tireless effort to ensure that we could all communicate.
Throughout the week, we worked hard, had fun and got to know one another. We had many visiting Park Inn staff members who would come by to bond with the young people and paint with them. Sven, the project manager from the Responsible Business department in Brussels, was with me all week making sure things went smoothly. Each day, we asked the kids to reflect on various themes, which they would then add to the mural. They explored their life challenges, painted portraits of supportive people in their lives, created scenes of nature and depicted healthy activities that bring them joy and keep them on a positive track. In one section, a girl flies as she holds on to balloons, which contain the goals and dreams of each participant. A flying squirrel, a favorite local animal that has amazing and surprising abilities, accompanies her, reflecting the nature of the youth themselves.
Carmen, one of our most enthusiastic teens, created many incredible paintings throughout the mural. I enjoyed speaking to her and to others who opened about the extremely challenging time they were currently facing, and their goals and dreams for their lives once they had graduated from the center. One young man, Rauno, created a fascinating self-portrait in which he was half negative and half positive. He told me that this reflected his feeling that he often felt conflicted by which direction to go in, having impulses inside himself that pushed him to exhibit self-destructive behavior as well as other, more healthy and positive impulses. Rauno was also very keen to try out spray paint, so together we created a stencil of his favorite animal, a spider. Upon seeing this, many others created their own stencils, and we had a blast spraying them onto the wall and creating custom T-shirts!
On the seventh and final day, we all felt great pride in what we had accomplished, but also sadness that our experience together had come to an end. After some speeches, we enjoyed the refreshments and chatted, took lots of selfies, and reflected on our time together. I told them that I too had a rough adolescence in which life didn’t always go in the direction that I had hoped, but that they had an opportunity to turn things around and make their dreams– which they had painted in the balloons– come true. To make this happen they would need to work hard and take advantage of the resources available to them, especially the incredible, supportive staff members at their center.
Thanks to all the incredible teen artists, Britt and the center staff, Olga, Sven, David, Toma and the whole Park Inn team for making this project such a success!!
Posted on October 14, 2016
The community of Kløfta, outside of Oslo, was the scene of the first of four in a series of youth public art projects this year with Park Inn by Radisson hotels, known as Adding Color to Lives. For this initiative, I partnered with a youth center called Huset Kløfta, where 20 young people designed their own mural in the opening workshop and then spent the week turning their vision into a large-scale public mural on the outside wall of the center. Employees from the local Park Inn in Oslo had the opportunity to get involved in their community and build relationships with the youth through the process of creating art together. The project was intended as a catalyst for the hotel to continue the relationship with the youth center with a series of planned activities throughout the year. I believe that for young people experiencing challenges in their lives, forming bonds with their peers and with positive adults in their community is essential to receiving the support they need to overcome adversary. That, along with the production of an artistic contribution to Kløfta in the form of a beautiful mural, was the goal of this project.
Over the course of the week, I enjoyed working with the team, which included my wife, CJ, the project manager; staff members from the youth center and the Park Inn employees. We had a blast getting to know the teenage participants, who included several from Norwegian descent as well as those from Iraq, the US, Thailand, Angola, Russia, the Philippines and more. Each day, we reflected on topics that were then included in specific sections of the mural. One side focused on moments from the past that were significant for each participant, while another area focused on the transition to the present and future. The teens painted local wildlife as a reflection of their passion for environmentalism, depicted activities that they feel keep them on a positive path, and a variety of trolls, which are an important aspect of culture and folklore in Norway.
Many of the teens really shone in the project, forming friendships and learning new skills. One example of this was Cali, who had moved from Hawaii a year ago and had struggled with her new environment. A truly talented and creative girl, Cali stayed each day for many hours after the session had ended, painting many of her creations on the wall. Her mother came by one day to tell us that, over the course of the project, she had finally snapped out of the funk she had been in since arriving and was now herself again. This experience underscores the importance of positive, artistic activities that young people can focus their energy on in which they can connect with others and make a contribution to their community.
Our closing ceremony included speeches by the mayor, the directors of the youth center and Park Inn, myself and three of our most enthusiastic participants: Cali, Jesse and Jelson, who discussed the meaning of the artwork and the process by which we created it. We had a live performance by another teenager, a ribbon-cutting ceremony and then lots of festivities, with refreshments and congratulations all around. Many of the young people seemed genuinely shocked at what they had accomplished and the outpouring of support from the community residents, many of whom attended the event. Congratulations to everyone involved, and a special thanks to our team who made this project a success!
Posted on July 23, 2016
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is among the most intractable and complex in the world today, with local politicians and world leaders alike unable to find a viable alternative to the unsustainable and violent status quo. With no solution in sight and the political situation having deteriorated in recent years, the only positive developments possible are the ones happening on the grass-roots level, between regular people yearning for a brighter future and ready to sit down and have a constructive dialogue with those who they have been taught to fear and hate.
My collaborative partner Max Frieder and I, co-directors of the organization Artolution, recently returned to the region to facilitate a series of 8 short community-based public art projects with local youth across Israel and the Palestinian territories: East Jerusalem, Akko, Jisr az Zarqa, South Tel Aviv, Nazareth and Nablus in the West Bank. Much of our work involved bringing Palestinian and Israeli teenagers together to explore the issues that are important to them and their communities, learn from one another and envision what a brighter future would look like for all the inhabitants of the region. By working together collaboratively, they chose the themes and imagery for the murals they would create, bringing together dozens of ideas into one cohesive design. The painting process then unfolded in a frenetic whirl of colors. By working toward a common goal, the participants formed bonds and had fun together, something that is extremely rare in this highly segregated region. It was incredible to witness the teens embracing the opportunity to connect with one another and opening up in a way that many had never had the chance to do in their lives. Our work was supported by the US Embassy in Tel Aviv through the Artist Envoy program, the US Consulate in Jerusalem, and a variety of local grass-roots community groups, schools and organizations across the region.
Beyond the coexistence projects, we also addressed the situation of African refugees in South Tel Aviv, where residents face intense discrimination and racism from the local population and are almost never granted asylum by the Israeli government, despite having fled violent conflict and oppression in Sudan, Eritrea and other nations. Their children, though born in Israel, are not granted citizenship, rendering them stateless. There are also locals who support them, like the organization UNITAF, as well as an NGO started by the spouses of diplomats from over 50 countries. We worked with these two amazing groups to facilitate a mural project with some adorable children and their staff members at a daycare center that serves the refugee community, bringing life and color to a difficult situation.
We also worked with groups of Palestinian youth from contested East Jerusalem and the Balata refugee camp in the West Bank city of Nablus, who have grown up with severe limitations on their lives and the suffering of trauma related to the conflict. Through the Artolution workshops, the participants addressed these difficult topics and discussed that which gives them strength and hope: their culture, families, community and their belief that they can be agents of positive social change to affect their own future. These concepts became the basis for the murals that they then created together, public monuments to the pain and the hope that embody these talented young people.
This whirlwind of community art projects expands the Artolution’s body of work in the Middle East over the last few years, created by hundreds of children, adolescents and families across the region. We plan to use this momentum to take the initiative to the next level: the founding of an ongoing, sustainable community-based public art program led by local Palestinian and Israeli artists and educators. Stay tuned for more details on the future of the Artolution in the Middle East.