Waltzing into a community you've never been to and introducing yourself as the artist who is going to paint the town mural is risky business. Even when you've been invited, the expectations can be unattainable, especially when its a community's first big mural. And it's understandable, people want to make sure that their ideas are included and that certain important figures or historical events are not overlooked. And occasionally others want to insure that some things from the past or complicated current realities are not committed to paint.
I am well aware of this, and am quick to admit that it's nearly impossible to include everything that is suggested by participants in the final mural. To do so would make something more like a tourist brochure and less like an artwork. Instead I suggest that we aspire to make a mural that is like a visual poem or folksong, with an emphasis on symbol and metaphor, supported by specific references to place, people and history.
Encouraging participation begins with open community meetings. This isn't just to get 'buy-in' (a phrase that sounds suspiciously like a bribe to me), it is because the knowledge and experience of residents are what will shape the content of a mural that is authentic and embraced by them.
This week Jordan, Ashley, and I began this process by leading two community-wide meetings in order to introduce the mural project, give folks an opportunity to visit with us, ask questions, and begin to imagine the mural. Our meetings were held at the Dawson Education Cooperative which occupies a clutch of neatly kept buildings in downtown Arkadelphia.
Dawson is a service organization focused on increasing student achievement across twenty-three districts in Arkansas. Through workshops with teachers, distance learning opportunities, and direct support, Dawson is actively engaged in providing resources to districts beyond what they could provide themselves. Choosing Arkadelphia as their home has added to the community's growing reputation (sometimes referred to as the 'Athens of Arkansas') as place that prides itself on learning and education.
Our meetings were both well attended. We got great initial feedback after I gave a presentation about the mural process and the background of the Mid-America project. The biggest question we heard was, where is it going to be? At the time we'd narrowed the search down to two walls. Later this week we'll reveal which one was chosen. Stay tuned...