Public Art Means Public Controversy

Print More

Students at PS 242 in Harlem recently gathered with teachers, administrators and neighbors in their transformed schoolyard to celebrate the beautification of their playground. What had been a drab stretch of black pavement surrounded by plain brick walls had just gotten a drastic makeover. The Trust for Public Land replaced a large section of asphalt with artificial turf where the children could play sports without skinning their knees. At another corner, a garden that was still under construction would eventually serve as an amphitheater where teachers could lecture during nice weather and the children could perform.

The centerpieces of the yard’s renovation were two mural walls. On one wall were four ceramic mosaics depicting the changing seasons. The other bore a striking image that lit up the neighborhood. On the left side of this painting, there’s a black and white image of the dark city at night, with a dreamer rising from an apartment and leading the viewer’s eyes into a bright cartoon scene portraying fantastic characters flying over an azure sea. Guest artist Paul Deo, a New Orleans native driven to relocate to New York after Hurricane Katrina, explained that a Mardi Gras theme influenced his design.

Deo was brought to the project by the Groundswell Community Mural Project, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that’s hired teenagers to paint murals around the city since 1996. Under the guidance of guest artists, young people ages 14 to 21 spend summer weeks researching themes, discussing ideas, painting under the hot sun and earning money at a unique summer job. It may seem like a project that nobody could oppose, but some of the children participating learned a familiar lesson about art and controversy: that some people respect artists’ right to express themselves – as long as they get final say over the terms of that self-expression.

The whimsical scene of “The Animation State” wasn’t the controversial part. What made the PS 242 principal uneasy was the image of two cartoon characters resembling Tupac and Biggie, dead rappers who were killed in alleged East Coast-West Coast rivalries. In the mural, they’re smiling at each other, holding doves and appear to be ascending toward the heavens. It didn’t matter that they are wearing shirts with the words “Peace” and “Unity.” The principal argued that their presence in the mural was a glorification of gang violence, and she insisted the Tupac character not include a gang-like bandana. Soon enough, a Groundswell staffer painted over it.

Deo, who has described himself variously as a “street artist, advertiser, teacher, father and filmmaker,” says his public work faced opposition on occasion when he lived in New Orleans, too. He painted a mural on the side of a dilapidated church that was known to be a crack house. “Tourists would stop to take pictures in front of it,” Deo recalled. Once the building came into the public eye, dealers stopped going there – until the mural was painted over in solid gray. Shortly after, the drug trade returned to the church, he says.

Although most communities welcome the Groundswell murals, this isn’t the first time a project has met with resistance. Last summer, a group of adult immigrants got clearance from both the Sunset Park Family Health Center and Our Lady of Perpetual Help cathedral (which leased space to the health center), to install mural panels with an “open doors” theme on a chain link fence at 60th Street and Sixth Avenue in Brooklyn. Although the muralists considered the proposed works celebratory and nonthreatening, some longtime area residents responded negatively to a public sharing of the sketches, says Groundswell founder and executive director Amy Sananman. Public art “becomes this lightning rod for other issues in the community” – in this case deeper race and class issues, she said. Residents threatened to destroy the artworks, and eventually the would-be muralists changed their plans, bringing much of the project indoors, because “they felt the community wasn’t ready for public art,” Sananman said.

Another conflict came in 1999, when Groundswell unveiled the mural “Peace in Not a Dream in Storage” on the side of a Rite Aid at 10th Street and 5th Avenue in Park Slope. The mural, a collaboration with the Center for Anti-Violence Education, pictured a community symbolically confronting drugs and violence – with images of people sweeping away intravenous needles, a wolf dripping blood from its mouth, and a pregnant man, symbolically walking a mile in a woman’s shoes.

The neighbors objected to the imagery, and a Rite Aid spokesperson was quoted at the time as saying, “The message of antiviolence is a great thing for a corporation to be involved with, and we want to make sure everyone is comfortable with the manner in which it is done.” That proved impossible for the residents, and Rite Aid whitewashed the wall shortly after.

“Nobody ever protests a Budweiser ad, only art,” says Groundswell founder and executive director Amy Sananman. “I think it has to do with how Americans conceive of public versus private space.”

Sananman visits Santiago de Cuba every two years to participate in InterNos, a festival of murals. She even met her husband there; he was working at the Taller Cultural, which organizes the festival. Now, both are working artists living in Sunset Park. In fact, on same day the murals were dedicated in Harlem, Groundswell also celebrated the completion of another mural at PS 503, just a few blocks from their house.

Luckily for them, nobody opposed that artwork. Titled “Beautiful Migration,” it’s a towering mosaic portraying two elephants. On one of their backs, we see the Egyptian goddess Isis, with her eagle wings spread from its head to tail. According to mythology, her tears became the Nile River, and in the picture they stream through the tusk of one of the elephants and empty into the crops located at another’s feet. If you look closely, you can find environmental activist Julia Butterfly-Hill sitting in a tree and Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai planting seeds of future saplings. It’s a detailed work for any artist, let alone for teenagers to construct those intricacies.

Lead artist Belle Benfield, a painter, printmaker, muralist, and curator working in Brooklyn and England since 2001, took the young women to the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s Center for Feminist Art during their three weeks of research, and worked with them on the finishing touches until minutes before the presentation. During their speeches at the ceremony, several of the girls bragged about the battle scars of their work from cutting their fingers on the mosaic tiles. Sananman says many of the children respond better to single-sex groups, where they don’t feel pressured to conform to typical gender roles.

As part of his comprehensive PlaNYC 2030 map for sustainable growth, Mayor Bloomberg proposed using 290 schoolyards as public parks after school hours, giving Groundswell’s work that much more impact on the community at large. John Kixmiller, co-director of a nonprofit that has helped shape the P.S. 503 schoolyard into a lively community center, attended the “Beautiful Migration” ceremony on Aug. 29. Based on his experience over several years, Kixmiller says whether or not they include murals, vital communal spaces need supervision and maintenance – functions he doesn’t see enough provision for in PlaNYC.

Not all of Groundswell’s murals are presented at schools, or are controversial. In fact, it seems that downtown Brooklynites welcomed one of the most provocative murals of the new group of artworks just completed last month. It depicts three children who were killed by cars on or near 3rd Avenue and Baltic Street. Displayed at the corner of 3rd and Butler in Gowanus, these 50-foot-tall paintings of Victor Flores, James Rice, and Juan Angel Estrada show the boys holding street signs reminding motorists to slow down and share the road with pedestrians and bicyclists. Next to their portraits are their names, along with the years of the birth and death.

The children look astoundingly lifelike, their clothes flowing in an imaginary breeze. They are painted in a ghostly light blue, and have relaxed smiles that make their memorial even more poignant. Among them stands the shadow of a fourth child who has not yet been killed, holding a stop sign that reads “Not One More Death.” Family members, transportation activists, and a state senator attended the dedication.

Three other murals went up this season. “Building Better Tomorrows” was inspired by students’ interviews with immigrant families, and was presented at the bilingual Latin American school PS 24 in Sunset Park. “Weeksville Time Train,” painted at Hugh Gilroy Senior Center in Weeksville, tells the story of the neighborhood’s African-American heritage. One more mural is yet to be dedicated, in October – “Art Builds Community, Community Creates Change” at MS443/PS295 in Sunset Park.

– Adam Klasfeld

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *