Later this afternoon, muralist Dave Loewenstein and filmmaker Nicholas Ward will be at Ypsilanti’s Cultivate Coffee and Tap House. The two artists, who hail from Lawrence, Kansas, will not only be sharing their new documentary film Called to Walls, which is about the power of collaborative, community-based public art, but they’ll also be answering questions and leading a group conversation about the revolutionary and transformative nature of murals. [Local muralists Lynne Settles, Kayj Michelle, Amanda May Moore, Jermaine Dickerson, and Caleb Elijah-Molejo Zweifler will be participating in the discussion.] The film, which Ward co-directed with his collaborator Amber Hansen, will be shown at 5:00 PM, and the event will run until 7:30. Following is my brief conversation with Loewenstein and Ward, who were kind enough to take some time away from their travels to answer a few of my questions.
MARK: As I understand it, you’re going to be in Ypsilanti this Sunday to show your new documentary, Called to Walls. Before we get into the specifics of the movie, I’m curious as to what’s bringing you our way? Would I be right to assume that, as you both live in Lawrence, Kansas, we’re either going to be catching you on your way to, or from, a festival somewhere, or another screening?
NICHOLAS: Correct. This past July, an arts organizer from Port Huron by the name of Nicole Hayden reached out to us via the Called to Walls website with interest in hosting a screening of the film. Once we booked the screening in Port Huron, we began reaching out to neighboring communities to gauge interest for additional screenings. Ypsilanti was very responsive, and, through Will Spotts, who is a friend of Dave’s, we were able to get connected with Bekah at Cultivate. We’re very excited and thankful for the opportunity to share the film here in Ypsilanti.
MARK: And how did the two of you first meet one another?
NICHOLAS: Amber and I were students at the University of Kansas when we first met Dave. It was through a visiting artist series that he was hosting at his studio. Dave, while he’s known in Lawrence as an artist and muralist, is also a full-time organizer (unofficial), and we quickly realized that he was one of the people responsible for the undercurrent of really interesting work that was happening in town. So we kept him in our sights, and, when the opportunity to work together presented itself, we rose to the occasion.
DAVE: As I remember it, Nick and Amber were beginning a new mural project for an opera house in Junction City, Kansas, and they called me to chat about process and materials. A few years later, I was looking for assistants to join me in Tonkawa, Oklahoma for the first of the six murals across six states that would comprise the Mid-America Mural Project, and they joined the team. And that, by the way, is what the film is about.
MARK: OK, didn’t realize that Nicholas and Amber were also muralists, or that the film was set against the backdrop of the Mid-America Mural Project… So, tell us about the film… What was the genesis of the idea? What made you decide, as you were working on the Mid-America Mural Project, “Hey, we should make a film about what it is that we’re doing here?”
NICHOLAS: Amber and I started our work on the film in 2010. We were on our way to the Mural Project, fresh from graduate school at the University of Kansas, where we’d gotten MFAs in painting. I’d been working in film, doing stop motion animation, and we’d decided to film some of our experiences while working on the project. We started by creating short, playful vignettes of our experiences. It was part documentation of our process, and part a town portrait. Well, after a few of these vignettes, we recognized the power of the work that was happening through the mural workshops, and we began to document everything in earnest. From there, I stepped away from my role as muralist and began documenting full-time. This decision was made because we recognized the necessity for this type of community collaborative engagement. We saw it as something missing from the academic art experience, and we felt compelled to share the story. We wanted people to experience the process, this way of approaching artwork.
MARK: How did you both first become interested in creating murals?
NICHOLAS: For Amber and me, our collaborative work as muralists began with an unusual call. Amber and I both hail from the University of South Dakota, which, for several years, was the home of the infamous Lakota painter Oscar Howe. Howe was a faculty member at the school decades before we attended, and, while on staff, he had been commissioned to create a mural in the community. The mural, for a peculiar set of reasons, was never realized during Howe’s lifetime. In our final year as undergraduate students, though, decades after this mural was first proposed, Amber and I were approached by the Dean of Fine Arts, John A. Day, who gave us the task of bringing Howe’s unrealized mural to life. It was a real honor, as well as a significant challenge. And that was the initial spark that got us creating this type of work.
DAVE: For me, it’s a long story. Basically I was looking for a way to be an artist that connected with audiences of regular folks – not just academics and gallery goers. I was also interested in bringing together my more activist oriented work with my art. I created my first community-based mural in 1992, in Lawrence. Working alongside friends, and with an audience of passersby, I was hooked. Although I do many other things as an artist, I’ve focused on these large scale community-based projects for 25 years now.
MARK: What can you tell us about that first mural project back in ‘92? As you mentioned your activism, would I be correct to assume that it was created in response to a specific issue of importance to you?
DAVE: Actually, the first mural was for a new bar that was opening up in Lawrence, and the theme of the mural, which the owners left up to me, was a carry-over from the time I’d spent as an apprentice on an organic farm in upstate New York. What was radical about it for me was that it was made in collaboration with friends and volunteers for a public audience that included bar patrons and anyone who happened to be walking down the alley behind the bar… It was, in that sense, a big departure from the work I’d been making in grad school.
MARK: Here in Ypsi, as I suspect you have have already heard from Will and Bekah, we’ve personally witnessed the power that mural projects can have when it comes to pulling people together and instilling a sense of community. Over past year or so, I can think of two African American history murals by local high school students that have been completed, as well as one on the subject of immigration, which was done by a group of young people from families of mixed immigration status. And, in all three of those instances, not only was there a huge outpouring of community support, but I really got the sense that the people involved, perhaps for the first time in their lives, felt as though they were actually a part of this community. Would I be right to assume that, wherever you go with the film, you’re hearing stories like this?
DAVE: Sure, there are many stories like those. There are also more complicated and difficult stories, some of which are portrayed in the film.
NICHOLAS: I’d like to say that we’re hearing a lot of stories like the ones you mention. To be honest, though, this type of engagement and collaboration between invested partners, in addition to the creation of relevant and powerful imagery, is not a given. I think that examples like the ones you’ve provided in your question are more rare than they should be. There’s a very concentrated effort right now in our country to leverage public art as a soft introduction for development and gentrification. Often this happens via artists who have good intentions, who are working with funders and/or partners that may have ulterior motives. Truly successful works of this nature come from the community, and are created by the community, even if these projects are facilitated and led by outside artists or collaborators. There’s a famous saying – “Nothing about us without us if for us.” In the case of public art, this seems to ring true. The experience you mentioned, the sense of shared ownership, is one we should experience more often as community members.
MARK: Dave, you allude to some “difficult stories” being in the film. Can one of you give us an example?
DAVE: In the film, one of the biggest questions is how a community-based art project could respond immediately after a natural disaster – in this case an f-5 tornado that had hit the city of Joplin, Missouri. What role does art, especially public art, play in a situation like that? Many people felt that the mural should not address or depict anything having to do with the storm or its aftermath. Others felt differently. It really came down to how the community wanted to represent itself in that moment, and we, the members of the mural team, were tasked with guiding that process.
MARK: I know very little about the history of murals in this country. Like most folks who live here in southeast Michigan, I’ve seen the murals of Diego Rivera in Detroit, but I don’t have a sense as to when murals first started cropping up on the American landscape. I mean, I know that people have anyways painted brick walls in public spaces, often to promote goods and services, but I know very little about the point when large, painted, public art projects first gained popularity, and how they may have moved in and out of favor over time. I’m curious to know if, in working on this film, you’ve done any research as to the prevalence of such projects, and how it may have changed over time…. It feels as though there’s been a recent resurgence, but I don’t know how to quantify that. It’s just a feeling.
DAVE: The community-based mural movement got its start in about 1967 with the Wall of Respect in Chicago, which is also portrayed in the film.
MARK: Maybe it’s the cynic in me, but I feel as though, we might have more murals being painted now because property owners have discovered that allowing members of the community to paint their walls is preferable to dealing with graffiti. I suppose the motivation may not matter, though, as long as end result is engaging, and brings people together, assuming of course it’s done correctly, right?
DAVE: This needs a longer discussion. Questions about who creates the mural, its content, and how it’s situated in the place are critical. Murals are made for many different reasons. The graffiti vs. mural argument is problematic as it makes veiled assumptions about the artists and their purpose.
NICHOLAS: I agree that we’re seeing more public art and murals for this reason, and I do believe that the motivation is significant. There is a significance to the relationships, the catalysts and intentionality of these projects. Beautification for the “wrong” reasons can have seriously adverse affects to a community. There’s a great article/case study about this by Steve Rasmussen Cancian. The reality of this type of public work is that it not only responds to its surroundings, but also affects its surroundings, the people, the culture. An area that becomes a mural alley, or similar project, may become beautified, but it may also price out long standing residents. In this way, the artist must be cognizant of numerous factors, including motivation, source, power, etc.
MARK: Here in Detroit, we had an interesting case not too long ago where a local artist by the name Sintex painted over a mural by Baltimore artist Gaia, which had been commissioned as part of what’s called the Grand River Creative Corridor on Detroit’s west side. [Gaia’s piece featured Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American man who was beaten to death by two white men in Highland Park in 1982.] Sintex, in defense of his action, told reporters that it just didn’t make sense in his neighborhood. “It would have made entirely more sense,” he said, had it been in Highland Park, arguing that walls along Grand River should have work relevant to people in that area. As I don’t suspect you know anything about the case, I don’t expect you to weigh in, but it does raise some interesting questions relative to the battle heating up between those employing art as a tool of economic development and local artists who feel as though they’re being marginalized.
DAVE: Interesting. I’d like to know more about that story. I think that there’s an important distinction between commissioned solo artist murals and the community-based approach we’re talking about. Perhaps a community-based approach might have addressed some of the questions that arose in the story you mention.
MARK: What’s the mural scene like in Lawrence right now?
DAVE: There are a few folks making murals. I can think of two going on right now, but Lawrence is small, and the University of Kansas Art Department doesn’t, and hasn’t seemed interested in training new muralists at all.
NICHOLAS: At the moment, it’s a bit tricky here in Lawrence. There isn’t much in the way of available city arts funding, and our state arts funding has been dismantled under our current governor. In the past two years, the mural scene has been a product of muralists partnering with not-for-profits to do projects. While there’s certainly enough worthy subject matter and interest, funding isn’t currently available for large public projects in the city of Lawrence. The majority of the murals in town were created between the late 90’s and early 2000’s.
MARK: The way murals come together, I imagine, is different everywhere. Some murals are created by single artists, and others are created by teams of people, who go through a long process of collecting community input. And some are just commissioned by groups, companies or individuals who have a very clear image as to what they’d like to convey. I’m curious as to whether, through your work in this area, you’ve developed practices that you now share with those in the communities where you show the film?
DAVE: Yes, absolutely, and the film is a reflection of our approach. I don’t know that our approach is necessarily better than other approaches, though, I believe there are many equally good approaches.
MARK: So what is your approach?
DAVE: We refer to it as a community-based approach. It’s not new. We are working in a tradition that goes back 50 years – to the Wall of Respect in Chicago. This approach is driven by local people who initiate projects, compose the design team that creates the mural, and work together to execute the piece. It’s a collaborative art, like theater or dance. This is in contrast to commissioning an artist or artist team to create and paint by themselves with only limited input.
NICHOLAS: As for what makes a good mural, I feel as though it should reflect the place (history, architecture, culture, etc.) or the people of a place. Murals, or other works of public art, are unique in their site specificity. In this way, these works are accountable, and part of the larger narrative of their surroundings. As that’s the case, they should respond to and inform simultaneously.
MARK: Dave, I’m curious as to how your mural work has changed over time, and why.
DAVE: Good question…. I hope I have learned from my experiences and gotten better at guiding these projects. It’s impossible for me to separate the process, the experience of conversation, and getting to know each other in a neighborhood or community, from the finished paintings. For me, they are a part of the same work. How they appear I imagine has changed, but perhaps not in the traditional way we think of an artist’s work “developing.” Someone other than me would have better perspective I think.
MARK: What’s the best thing so far to come of Called to Walls for each of you?
DAVE: Wow, I’ve had many people tell me that they had never understood what I did before, or what potential these type of projects had. The film drives people to deep discussions about the power of art to impact issues of social justice and people’s history.
NICHOLAS: For me the best outcome of this film has been the response of viewers. It is evident to me that there has been a clear conveyance of what it is, what it means to do this type of collaborative, in-depth work as a community. This term “community-based” is used very lightly in contemporary art language, especially in “social practice” circles and my feeling is that this film shines a light onto its narrative, giving insight into successful outcomes of not only how the art work functions but how community collaboration is crucial to societal health.
[Those interested in knowing more are encouraged to check out Dave’s blog and his book, Kansas Murals: A Traveler’s Guide… Also, for what it’s worth, they never answered my What’s the Matter with Kansas question.]