The mural is an impressive physical object. At 34 feet wide and 4.5 feet high, it dominates most of the spaces large enough to display it. To see the whole, you have to stand too far back to see the details. To take in the details you have to walk along the piece. If you walk/read it from left to right, you will be making a journey that also reflects the order in which the panels were created. In this way, the mural operates much like a narrative scroll, especially because the children chose to work representationally--the whole piece has the feel of an illustrated story. Different groups of children working in different cultural contexts responded to the same prompt in to make it, and so the common themes and obvious differences are interesting to reflect upon. Before I went to Juárez/El
Paso, every group chose a mostly representational image/colors of place (instead of metaphorical or abstract patterns). I wondered about this many times over the course of this journey. I was careful to explain and show the children many different kinds of community murals, always including abstract patterns and metaphorical images in the examples and discussion. I think the first group of kids (9-12) were just not ready as a group for abstract thinking (typically this begins to develop in adolescence). They were the only group to hear the story Same, Same, but Different, a story of pen pals across the world who share descriptions and drawings of where they live. Like pen pals, the first group composed their image with the next group in mind, literally writing messages for them in the clouds of their painting. It was important to them to create things all the groups would share--the sun, sky, clouds, and water. They wanted to connect.
Child's sketched composition for Samos panel
The two groups that followed included teens old enough that abstraction and metaphor could be meaningful, and I was interested to see that they also chose representation as their overall compositional style. There could be many reasons for ths. After the first group, each group that followed was responding to images already on the canvas in front of them. While not a collaboration in real time, the piece functioned as visual conversation, which like all conversations depends upon people choosing to use common structures to communicate. And all of these kids wanted to connect--many of these kids thought the most important part of the mural was that it would be worked on and seen by people in other countries. Interestingly, the children’s relationship with the work did not end with the completion of their panel. The groups remained actively curious and sought out information about the fate of the mural when it left their hands. They continue to respond to the work, with questions and comments I receive through email.
With the Juárez group I changed how I presented the mural itself, waiting until after the kids had drawn their images and made some compositional decisions before showing them the large mural. When I unrolled the huge mural across their cafeteria tables, I told the story of the mural and asked them how they wanted to connect their ideas to the images already there. It could be cultural differences (especially in the use of color) or it could be that making some decisions before seeing the whole mural enabled the children to stick to more independent choices. The last panel is substantially different--but still visually connected--to the other works. The most obvious difference is in the use of color schemes that were metaphorical rather than realistic. Once that choice had been made by the children who showed up on day 1, it was difficult to enforce with the subsequent participants, who were drifting in and out and had not been part of the conversation. However, I felt it was important to honor the choices of the group who made the decision, and made sure we stuck to the plan. The desire to create representational colors was still very strong and frequently I had to switch the colors in the hands of the smallest children, who wanted green hills and red flowers, etc.
Given that all the groups chose mostly representational images, it was interesting to see what they included in their composition. All of the communities have mountains and cities or towns--shared features that are reflected in the images. All but one include the ocean (interestingly none of the children in Juárez had traveled to the ocean or across it in their journey to seek asylum). All of the images have schools in them--which makes sense, because most of the project happened in school environments (except in Juárez, where the children did not have any lessons at all), and school is significant in the lives of all of these kids (even the Juárez children, who hoped to someday attend school in the US). Each panel also has unique local details and community-specific experiences. The North Carolina students made sweet potato and sheep farms, and Al’s Burger Shack(a neighborhood favorite). The Thessaloniki panel features Thessaloniki’s famous White Tower and waterfront promenade, and the Old Town castle perched on the hill. It was very important to the children on Samos to show specifics of the camp--the hospital and police buildings, the container shelters and the food line, as well as the many tents. And for the Juárez participants, the details of the shelter Casa Del Migrantes (like the numbered units, the TV, and the church) were vital to their connection to a place.
All of the groups included at least one metaphorical element in their composition. The Chapel Hill children put their faces in the mountains, to show that people are the foundation of their community. The Thessaloniki group made the face of a goddess under the city, to represent their culture’s ancient foundations--and put a face in the moon in the sky. The refugee children from Samos made their tents black to reflect, as as one child put it, “the darkness of our lives up there.” They repeated the tent shape over a much larger area proportionally than the camp actually occupies, to give a sense of how the refugee issue dominates this small island community. In Juárez, the children chose to alternate warm and cool color schemes, selecting their past and future for the warm colors because they wanted those ideas to stand out. Communities in camps and shelters are in an in-between place, always thinking about what they left behind, and their hopes for the future.
The metaphors add an interesting contrast of mood to the panels. The faces in the first and second panels add a positive feel, they seem secure in their place in the mountains with smiles or steady gazes at the viewer. In the third panel, muddy brown mountains are covered in a mass of tents and people, all painted black and indistinguishable from each other. This area looms over the colorful harbor town of Samos, adding contrast and tension to the feel of the scene.
In Juárez the participants chose religious figures and symbols to represent the main ideas in the past/present/future sections of their panel. Religion was a major unifying force in this community--every participant was Catholic, and of course the shelter was run by the Diócesis de Ciudad Juárez. These children also used the metaphor of a boy washing his hands to represent the education about and support for health they were receiving in Casa Del Migrante, and his idea that focusing on health will lead them into the future (represented by the road leading from the drain in the sink to the border wall in the next panel).
The mural as an object has all the signs of having been carried on my back or my daughter’s in pretty much every kind of public transportation there is. It is stretched oddly, and torn in places where we had to nail it to different walls. The quality of the painting varies--some of these kids had never held a paintbrush, some had had years of private lessons. The middle scene is less finished because of time restraints on that group. The painted edges of the panels overlap roughly, and there is an awkward seam between the second panel and the third where I added a whole new piece of canvas for the kids on Samos. To strengthen the edges for hanging this now very heavy piece, I had a piece of nylon webbing added to the edge--which I had to cut when I made the decision to expand the mural and add the panel for the community in Juárez. While I hope to get the webbing resewn soon to protect the last panel in future displays, I don't mind the signs of wear, tear, and travel--as an artifact, the state of the mural perfectly represents its own journey and the artists that created it.
For more information on the making of the work, check out the process page, or the pages for each of the locations where the mural was created: Chapel Hill, Thessaloniki, and Samos. For more information on the meaning of this work, see impact.