Take a group of low-income, at-risk youths from various ethnic backgrounds, all involved with the criminal justice system, many with a history of interracial and gang warfare.
Employ them to work on a massive mural project documenting their various ethnic histories.
Bring together a group of artists, oral historians, ethnologists, scholars, and community volunteers to collaborate.
What do you get?
You get the Great Wall of Los Angeles.
I just visited this astounding half-mile long mural showing the history of ethnic people in California from pre-historic times until the 1950s.
It’s said to be the longest mural in the world.
It’s a long train of powerful, moving, disturbing, beautiful images.
Here’s how it came to be: In 1974, the Army Corps of Engineers contacted Los Angeles artist Judy Baca about the possibility of creating a mural as part of a beautification project along the wall of the Tujunga Wash, a flood control channel that drains the Los Angeles River in the San Fernando Valley.
Baca, a Chicana, took inspiration from the Mexican social mural movement, and conceived of a project that would use the space to “create public consciousness about people who are, in fact, the majority of the population, but who are not represented in public spaces in any visual way.”
Over 400 young people participated in the making of the mural, which was begun in 1974 and completed over five summers.
The youths selected were employed as assistants and participated in both the planning and execution of the mural. They were paid through the Summer Youth Employment Program.
The participants were supervised by professional artists who worked with them four to eight hours a day.
They received art instruction, attended lectures by historians specializing in ethnic history, and did improvisational theater and team-building exercises.
There were big take-aways. Kids who had always felt themselves invisible felt the importance of their history and gained new perspectives on the impact they could make in their world.
The project engendered responsibility, cooperation, comradery, pride.
The participants learned to work together in a context where the diversity of their cultures was the focus. Thus the Great Wall, in its process of creation as well as its content, is a great monument to interracial harmony.
Work is never done on the Wall, as it is in continuing need of restoration. In addition, Baca hopes be able to continue the project, engaging more young people and depicting history up to the present day.
If you’re in the LA area, you can find The Great Wall of Los Angeles along Coldwater Canyon Avenue between Burbank Blvd and Oxnard Street in Valley Glen. It runs in roughly chronological order, with the beginning on the Burbank Blvd end.
There really are people out there who are changing the world in wonderful ways. Here’s a video about the history and the making of the mural:
I am a long-time fan of street art, and since I’m somewhat… uh, senior in years, I was pretty excited to come across a Lisbon-based project called LATA 65. This organization is providing seniors with the history and basics of street art and graffiti and then arming them with masks, spray cans, and walls in run-down neighborhoods where they can try out street art for themselves. Judging by the photos, it seems like it’s been a joyous experience for the participants!
According to LATA 65, the project aims to promote connection and understanding between generations through the arts, by introducing older folks to an art form generally practiced only by younger people.
LATA 65 hopes to promote active aging and demonstrate that age is just a number. Their goal is to “awaken, motivate and excite the elderly through urban art” by presenting them with “new activities, new techniques associated with youth, as a way to escape and to break routines, generating quality, joviality and well-being in their lives.”
LATA 65 also stresses the power of urban art to democratize contemporary art by encouraging participation and expression by people of all ages.
Back in January, a friend challenged me to participate in an online art project called 100 Sticky Sketch Challenge. The idea was to draw one sketch a day on a 3×3 post-it note, starting February 1st, for 100 days.
Draw something from your bag or pocket
Draw something inspired by love
Each week there was a new topic, so there were seven post-it note sketches each week in each category.
Draw something using only one continuous line
Make a complete drawing from someone’s scribble
Participants were asked to post photos of their sketches on Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, using the hashtag #stickysketch100 to share with the group.
Combine two everyday objects to create something new
Draw something from your shopping list
As you can see, I did accept the challenge. I had been looking for a way to inject more creative discipline into my days, and had actually been looking around for an interesting art class, in search of some structure and inspiring assignments.
Design a bogus merit badge
Draw a simplified famous work of art
Although working on little yellow post-its didn’t appeal to me, it also didn’t seem at all daunting. They’re cheap, and if I needed to throw ten away to get one drawing I liked, it was no big deal. In fact, the crumminess of the paper made me feel that not every drawing had to be anything special, which was very freeing. And the small size presented constraints that limited the possibilities, which is always helpful to me when I’m feeling unfocused.
Draw your favorite song lyrics or movie quotes
Draw something thrown away
The weekly themes were varied. Most were playful and fun, and I loved them. Some were challenging, in a good way. A favorite week: Choose your own adventure: seven drawings, one topic.
I was ambivalent about some topics, and those were more of a struggle. Sometimes I was uninspired, and did something lame to get it over with. Some weeks I was busy and fell behind, so I did three or four drawings in one day to get caught up.
Draw the most boring thing you did today
Draw something odd you overheard or saw
I posted all my drawings on Facebook and Tumblr. It was fun to get comments on the sketches from friends. I also loved seeing the work that other people did, which was easy to do because of the hashtag. Except for the friend who challenged me, I didn’t know anybody else personally, but I began to recognize people by their drawings. It was great fun to see what everyone else was doing. Whether people are professionals or amateurs, there’s just no end to creativity.
What will the future look like?
Draw your sticky selfie
I made it to drawing #100 a few days ago. Towards the end, I was really looking forward to finishing. I had other things I wanted to work on. But the process brought a lot of insights, and I’ll really miss it.
There’s something really wonderful about being part of a community art project, even one that takes place online. Being a small piece of the whole can take the pressure off and feel liberating. Seeing the great variety in the work of others can inspire and somehow lessen feelings of intimidation. And the finished work, a very individual yet very communal creation, is always a beautiful surprise.
In 2011, I participated in a Portland, OR community knit mural project called You Are The Chosen One. The mural, composed of 108 squares knit by 99 artists, was the brainchild of Seann McKeel, who conceived of the theme, designed the grid, organized the knitters, and assembled the work. The only requirement was that the squares be a certain size, and the rest was up to the individual knitter, which generated a beautiful variety of squares. I signed up to do the H square in CHOSEN, and learned intarsia, a knitting technique that was new to me.
The squares were assembled by McKeel and friends into a large hanging mural that read YOU ARE THE CHOSEN ONE, and was displayed in downtown Portland in September 2011.
McKeel invited contributors to submit statements about what they feel they are chosen for, encouraging much reflection about the purpose of one’s life. The statements are as personal and varied as the squares themselves. What are you chosen for?
McKeel, the co-producer of You Who!, a monthly Portland children’s rock variety show, also organized the 2010 community-based art project knitnotwar 1000, an art installation composed of 1000 knitted cranes, an international symbol of peace. You can read about the inspiration for the project here, and if you want to knit cranes yourself, you can find the pattern here.
Interested in reading about a children’s community art project? Take a look here.
One thing I’ve loved about having an art therapy practice is the way the creative inspiration flows both ways between my clients and me. It’s a real give and take. The materials, process, themes explored, and energy generated always seem to hand me some kind of gift.
In a previous post, I wrote about a mask project at a foster care agency picnic. In preparation for that project, I spray-painted about a hundred pre-made paper mâche masks on top of some scrap cardboard. (An aside about process: The masks, available to buy here, are made from brown craft paper, and I thought it would be a good idea to give people a clean white canvas to work on. For later mask-making, I skipped the spray painting prep and found that it was unnecessary with most materials, the big exception being the much-loved Sharpie markers, which look dull on the brown.)
When I finished spraying, I realized that I actually had a lot of new canvasses that would be as much fun to fool around with as the actual masks. So I cut some up and played around.
Eventually, I did a larger piece incorporating red-painted twigs and a nest. I called it Family Tree because it seemed like it could be about all my mysterious ancestors, Eastern Europeans whose children (my grandparents) fled the old country. Sadly, somewhere along that journey the stories of those old country ancestors were lost, never to be known to the younger generations on their family tree. Even though I know nothing about them, I feel that they somehow have a lot to do with who I am, and their hazy images found expression in those pieces of junk cardboard.
At an annual picnic for a therapeutic foster care unit, foster children, their bio and foster siblings, all generations of foster families, and all unit staff members come together for a day of fun: swimming, horse rides, baseball, barbeque, and a community art project for all ages. This is art therapy in a different sense, an art project that’s a fun and healing happening. In this particular unit, the children fare better when they work individually, so this year each person there is given a paper mâche mask to paint and decorate.
The resulting masks, each one highly unique, are hung on a wall, gallery-style, in the front window of the agency in midtown Manhattan. Children coming to agency appointments proudly lead others to see their work and admire the work of others. Staff members regularly comment that it makes their day to see the masks as they pass them going into work. Passersby are so taken with the masks that they come in off the street to ask if they are for sale. They are tangible works of beauty, and everyone who participates or witnesses the works knows that they are also a triumph of something much bigger.
Children in foster care commonly struggle with extreme feelings of isolation, with the feeling that they are different, that they are not a part of the world. Seeing their work as part of a whole can be a very powerful experience. Community art events have the potential to create a culture of fun, acceptance, and accomplishment. A group project can be a metaphor for a community that shares space and supplies; that helps neighbors with support, encouragement, suggestions, or an extra hand; that values the contributions of all. Community members experience real joy in seeing the beauty of a communal creation that has been assembled from their individual contributions.