The meaning of the mural, like any art object, is still being created, as it travels to different locations and is viewed and thought about by people not connected to the process of its creation. Most of the people who see images on this website will not see the mural in person, and for that I am wistful--it is a powerful experience. A screen cannot represent the physicality of an object of this size worked on by so many hands. I never unrolled the mural without hearing audible gasps from people around me.
As the originator of the idea and the only one witness to its creation from start to finish, the meaning of the work for me will always be an ineffable mix of the images themselves, the stories of the children, how each group responded to the process, and my personal experiences on this journey.
And so, while acknowledging the unknown potential impact of this piece and the overwhelming personal impact it has had on me, I’d like to return to the questions that drove my inquiry project:
Can the creation of collaborative art help heal trauma and divisiveness, and create a lasting sense of community among very different groups of people?
Is there a process that can empower all children to participate fully and value each other’s contributions?
I made a great effort to gather direct feedback from the children with simple, open-ended questions, to avoid leading them in their responses. Many of their answers led me to conclude that the process had been one of positive growth for them. I tried to be systematic, but in the shifting circumstances (this was especially difficult on Samos, where the creative group changed daily) I had to be content with whatever information I could get, on my own and with the help of local teachers. Here is what they had to say, along with the questions. Direct quotes are in quotation marks. When it says “anonymous”, that means the child chose not to give their name, an option I hoped would increase honesty.
What was your favorite part of making the mural?
“That we could make a mural that wasn’t even ours. It was a connection.” Gabe, age 11 from North Carolina.
“When we put on the finishing touches, because it was crazy to think of what it was before and what it is now.” anonymous, from North Carolina
“My favorite part is how our art is going to be shown to kids in Greece. It is sort of like communicating with the children there.” anonymous, from North Carolina
J. said he enjoyed how the whole process brought back memories of his family’s journey since leaving his home country, the journey by boat, arriving on Samos, etc. (J. is a refugee from Iraq, interviewed on Samos)
E. said he liked that all of his familiar surroundings were included in mural; things he sees everyday, tents and mountains for example. (E. is a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, interviewed on Samos)
Franklin, 15, from Honduras: "Being able to share ideas."
What was important about making the mural?
“That we can share our art with others.” anonymous, from North Carolina
“It shows unity and love from everyone in the world.” anonymous, from North Carolina
“That we all cooperated together and we made something all together for the first time.” Lia, from Thessaloniki
“I think the most important thing is that we all worked together for one drawing that many people are going to see.” anonymous, from Thessaloniki
All of the students on Samos that were asked gave almost the exact same answer to this question; they thought the mural was important because it shows people in other places what they are going through...They found comfort in knowing other people will see how they live and will want to help their situation.
V. also said the mural was helpful to make friends. She said it was good for people who are more shy, as there is no pressure involved--you can be a part of whatever part of the process and input how you want. (V. is a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, interviewed on Samos)
Natalia, 14, from El Salvador: "It's important that people know where we are from, what we are doing now, and what we hope to do in the future."
Elia, 37, from Nicaragua: "That we are all important even though we are immigrants."
What will you always remember?
“How happy we felt when we finished it and it was beautifully made.” Kleo, from Thessaloniki
“I will always remember Miss Sarah and the drawings made by us and by the other children. And the games we played together.” anonymous, from Thessaloniki
“I will always remember the times when we gathered around in a circle and talked, the times when we cooperated and helped each other if, for example, someone had trouble doing something. I will also remember the times when we all agreed on what we would do.” Melpo, from Thessaloniki
J. said he will remember all of it. (J. is a refugee from Iraq, interviewed on Samos)
Luis: "The happiness in the faces of the children and adults and how it was possible to forget the problems we all faced while pursuing our dreams."
Uriel: "How much fun I had!"
Elia: "That we all have a dream, and we can start making them happen with respect, friendship, and compassion toward other people and children, in God's grace."
Yhervin, 17, from Guatemala: I will always remember the Virgin of Guadalupe, and the unity we had in the moment of making the mural. Together we can move forward!"
Natalia: "I will always remember that the mural is my exact story."
I was delighted to receive feedback from my collaborating teachers about the longer-term impacts of our work. Ms. Michailidou, from Thessaloniki, observed, “It seems to me that what you did together has changed them in a way...They seem more responsible and more supportive to one another in comparison to how other classes have evolved over this time.” Ali Sheary, a volunteer teacher with Still I Rise on Samos, helped me gather feedback from the students who participated. She noted that from the way the children spoke about it, the process of making the mural seemed therapeutic. Ilka Vega, from Hope Border Institute wrote:
"This project meant a lot for all of us at HOPE and Casa del Migrante. Especially now that we (the US) are forcing asylum seekers to stay in Mexico during their asylum process it's easier for us on the US side to ignore their needs and humanity. Thus, painting the mural was a healing experience for the kids, the parents, and people like me who were fortunate to experience it. Seeing the kids make decisions about their mural and seeing how it turned out was incredible. You could see how excited they were to be included in such a meaningful way and to have a space to express their own creativity. Sarah also worked very hard to make sure that we could include all the kids that wanted to participate, from the really little ones to the older boys and girls. I think the sense of inclusion and trust really shows in the painting and what it portrays."
The impact of the mural on my home community expanded greatly after my decision to take it to the southern border of the US. The firestorm of media coverage about the treatment of migrant children on the US border generated passion about the issue, and people began wanting to hear more about my project. Before I even left for Juárez /El Paso, I was asked to speak on the radio. I began getting emails from people wanting to help, to host the mural, to have me speak about my experiences, especially after I had been to Juárez (Here is a link to a radio interview I did with WUNC's The State of Things).
While some of these outcomes aligned with my hopes, the project also impacted people in surprising ways. For example, I didn’t expect to have so many people who wanted to help me make this happen. From teachers asking if they could participate from other cultures, to passersby who stopped to paint or draw or watch for a while, to volunteers who traveled with me on their own dime to help--the project inspired action, for which I was grateful.
Every single child--in every group, regardless of circumstance--was happy with the process and the outcome. This was especially amazing to me when I talked with the kids on Samos and in Juárez. I’m not sure what I expected from those kids, but I certainly didn’t expect unanimous satisfaction and quiet joy in the project. I understand it better after talking with them about it. The asylum-seekers on both continents talked about how terrible it is to feel invisible, voiceless, and forgotten by the world. For those children and families, painting the mural made their experiences both visible and valued.
I was gratified to find one of my fundamental beliefs about art remains unchallenged: if you set it up right, it's just a whole lot of fun for everybody. I will never forget F., who loved painting so much she couldn’t put down her paintbrush. I couldn’t bear to ask her to stop when she kept painting over the other children’s careful lines, so I just kept handing her smaller and smaller paintbrushes. We laughed about it together and she kept painting every last minute she had. Wherever you are now, F., I wish for you many brushes and many colors in your life!
As a physical object, the mural has literally connected children across the globe. Each set of hands has touched the same piece of canvas, each set of minds has imagined the other groups, an ocean away, and responded with images and messages for each other and the rest of the world. One unifying response among all the groups was pride and excitement that this piece of canvas would be traveling across the planet to share with other communities. I hope I have planted some seeds for the communities we worked in: what peaceful coexistence looks like, how to make space for everyone’s voice and vision, how to really listen and bear witness to another’s experience, and how to focus on what unites us as we try and solve problems we all face together.
What do you think is important about the mural? From our first group of students, at the project's beginning:
Press/interviews about the mural project:
August 5, 2019, WCHL 97.9, On Air Today with Aaron Keck: https://chapelboro.com/the-aaron-keck-show/on-air-today/august-5-2019-same-difference-returns
July 23, 2019, WUNC 101.5, The State of Things with Anita Rao: https://www.wunc.org/post/traveling-art-project-connects-displaced-kids-0
July 12, 2019, WCHL 97.9, On Air Today with Aaron Keck: https://chapelboro.com/the-aaron-keck-show/on-air-today/july-12-2019-same-difference
June 25, 2019, Meredith Radford with The Daily Tarheel: https://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2019/06/chccs-teacher-fulbright-award
January 29, 2019, Molly Weybright, The Orange County Arts Commission: https://artsorange.org/how-art-creates-community/