Community Art . . . from page 1
Martinez incorporated Baca’s philosophy into her ART 4180 Painting/Special Topics - Murals course, which is limited to 15 students who are willing to work hard and do a lot of legwork in the community. Martinez notes that painters are “isolatory animals” who mostly use their own ideas or angst for subject matter, so students have to move out of their comfort zones in this course. “It’s difficult to make a work that’s not about you,” Martinez says, “so I really work my students hard in the beginning. Within the first month the students do a site visit, talk to community members, do research on the history of the area, and then work on an original idea for a mural. Sometimes we also do graffiti repair on previous murals so they can get the idea of physical space.”
Once the students have created their paintings, they are displayed at a community center near the targeted mural space. At that point, residents weigh in on their favorites and the votes are tallied. Once a painting is selected, it is usually altered a little to get a better perspective point, then gridded, photographed and scanned.
The next step is actually painting the mural, which Martinez insists be done right. “Flat looking murals usually get graffitied,” she says, “so we use five coats of paint to really give the mural some dimension. When people walk or drive by, we want them to notice things they didn’t notice the last time they passed it.”
"Urban Masquerade" is a recently painted mural on the eastern wall of a Utah Division of Arts and Museums office building on 500 West.|0-1| The mural’s genesis was “power figure” masks made by young Youth City kids in an art class. Martinez translated the masks into a multi-faceted mural design and she and her college students, in conjunction with older Youth City participants, spent several weeks painting the mural. Martinez smiles as she remembers the event and says, “Mural painting is really a performance, like ballet. Artists are mixing paint and dancing across the scaffolding. It’s pretty amazing to watch.”
With pubic murals, there’s always the question of how long to leave them up. Some muralists insist that their work remain intact in perpetuity, but Martinez says she abides by a five-year clause in her contracts. “Communities change,” she says, “and their needs for expression may change. I’m okay with that.”
There’s also the question of money. Martinez believes artists are providing a valuable commodity and emphasizes, “I don’t think artists should work for free, so we charge about $5 per square foot for our murals, which is $3 less than the commercial rate.” After paint, scaffolding and miscellaneous costs, Martinez uses the rest of the money to take her students out of state to visit art institutions, studio spaces and other cultural centers. This year’s crew is off to Chicago, and past trips have included Wendover, New York and San Francisco. Martinez notes that these trips sometimes provide a student with a first real “aha!” art experience – one of those unique moments when one realizes Van Gogh himself actually painted this!
Martinez |2| says there’s a mural renaissance happening in Salt Lake and she is very pleased about it. “When we first started doing murals,” she says, “we drove around in a car and looked for a building that an owner might let us use if we begged. Now they’re coming to us to ask if we’ll do a mural.” Building owners see the benefits of displaying public art, and they feel a real sense of pride in being able to connect with the community. They’re also much more willing to keep an eye on the mural and keep it cleaned up. Martinez is adamant, however, that her murals belong in the non-commercial, non-profit world. “My murals don’t sell anything,” she says resolutely.
Random Acts of Art
The Utah Division of Arts and Museums (UDAM) has recently made its own innovative strides in recognizing and embracing community art through its Change Leader network. Anna Boulton, who oversees the group, says that the Change Leader program really has a dual purpose. “It’s to help arts and culture leaders deal with continuous environmental change, and for them to be able to network and collaborate with each other.” Boulton notes that the network is especially helpful for arts and cultural leaders in rural communities because it connects them to other leaders in the state and lessens their isolation. “Really,” Boulton says, “it’s about bringing people together.”
Two years ago, at a UDAM Mountain West caucus session, participants were mulling over how the division could foster collaboration amongst communities, arts communities and businesses. There was also a conscious effort to ascertain how artists could give back to the communities that supported them. As Boulton says, “Sometimes good arts advocacy means artists helping the community meet its social needs.”
After much discussion amongst a committee of selected change leaders, the Random Acts of Art initiative was born. Designed to encourage change leaders to spearhead short-term arts projects in their communities with seed funding, the division awarded $500 to each of 10 projects ranging from Logan to Gunnison. Margaret Hunt, director of UDAM, is excited about the grants and says, “Random Acts of Art and other community-based arts projects provide an opportunity to break out of the day-to-day routine to add artistic surprises and create a community buzz. As a force for positive good, artists can build a feeling of pride in our neighborhoods and a shared sense of place."
At-risk youth in Gunnison will engage with their communities and gain marketable skills by participating in conscious speaking workshops and training to work as historical interpreters, and South Ogden artists will be invited to propose transformative artwork to beautify two landmark million-gallon water tanks. In West Valley young people will explore solutions to bullying through discussion and improvisation with Djembe African drums.
One of the projects being funded in Salt Lake is a yarn bombing/graffiti knitting installation co-sponsored by Art Access/VSA Utah and the Utah Arts Festival at Washington and Library Squares (full disclosure: I am part of this project). Knitters and crocheters from around the valley are banding together to adorn fences, benches, parking meters, flagpoles, traffic bollards and trees with crazy colors and designs on June 18, 2011.|3-4| The event will culminate with the collective on-site production of a tree “sweater”, and the public can enjoy the installation during the Art Festival, June 23-26.
According to Lisa Sewell, the Festival’s director, the project’s goal is to “bring together community residents who would not ordinarily interact with each other – school groups, guilds, yarn shop owners, homeless women, and ‘ordinary’ knitters and crocheters – to instill a sense of community through the production of a collaborative art project.” In the intervening time, large energetic “knit-ins” are taking place and knitted trees, bike racks, and hitching posts are sprouting up around town, bringing amusement and grins to city residents – a laudable outcome in and of itself.
EttaGrace Black Theatre
Still another approach to community art is through the performing arts. Toni Byrd, a familiar face to Salt Lake theatre-goers, was born in Chicago and raised in San Francisco, then moved to Salt Lake in 1972 as an undergraduate theatre major at the University of Utah. By her own definition, Byrd is a “really shy, introverted person” who paradoxically claims the stage as her comfort zone. “Are you really sure you want to interview me?” she asks a couple of times, “because I would much prefer to read a script than to make up my own words. Acting? That’s easy! But, coming up with coherent words on the spot, that’s hard.”
Notwithstanding her verbal discomfort, Byrd proceeds to describe how the EttaGrace Black Theatre came to exist. “When I first moved here,” she says, “there were only two or three black actors.” Although noting that the number has increased exponentially in the last 30 years, Byrd says black actors still get short shrift in Utah. Which is why Byrd and fellow actress/director, Melissa Adams, founded their theatre company last year. Named for both their grandmothers, Byrd says the purpose of the company is to educate the community about contributions blacks have made and about the stories they’ve lived. She wants more black people to attend theatre and she wants to give more black actors a chance at the stage. “There aren’t consistent opportunities for black actors in this community,” she says, “and especially for black actresses.” Then she chuckles and adds, “Never mind that our first production features several roles for black men.”
Miss Evers’ Boys will debut next February. The play is told from the viewpoint of small town nurse Eunice Evers and chronicles the ethical pitfalls of the Tuskegee Experiment, wherein 400 impoverished black sharecroppers with syphilis were offered fake health care by the U.S. Public Health Service and were never told they had a treatable condition. The goal of the 40-year experiment was to determine whether black men responded the same way as white men to the ravages of the disease.
Byrd was participating in the Sundance Playwright’s Lab 20 years ago when Miss Evers’ Boys was being developed by physician/playwright David Feldshuh. She says the local actors got to act “major roles in minor plays, or minor roles in major plays, and I got to act the minor role of stage manager in this production.” Byrd was really impressed with the play and assumed it would be picked up by one of the larger theatre companies in Salt Lake, but it never was. “So, we’re going to do it,” she says. “This story needs to be told.”
Byrd also wants the EttaGrace Black Theatre to produce plays that offer positive black role models, and to connect with other black companies around the country. She says playwrights wouldn’t need to be black themselves, but would definitely need to write about the black experience. Byrd also wants the theatre company to offer mentorship opportunities to young black people in all aspects of production: acting, technical support, stage management and administration.
The EttaGrace Black Theatre is currently a program at the community-based Grand Theatre. Byrd has worked there for 17 years, and when she and Adams were casting around for a venue, the Grand’s director, Richard Scott, offered a partnership. Byrd says, “We had the people and needed a barn, and he had the barn and needed the people, so it was a good match.”
Scott concurs, and says of Byrd and Adams, “We have two outstanding theatre artists with whom we can collaborate and help bring their vision to life, which in turn enriches our community. This is my definition of a successful creative relationship and I’m very excited that the EttaGrace vision is coming to life.”
And perhaps that is the continuous challenge for community art – to bring to life the stories, history, and dreams of the shared human experience.