Tuesday, October 8, 2013

New documentary about the Sioux Falls mural project

Watch the beautiful new film about "The World Comes to Whittier" by Nicholas Ward. Click on the image below.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Postcards of "The World Comes to Whittier" are here!

Beautiful 4" x 9" postcards of the new Meldrum Park mural have arrived. Get yours for just .50 cents each. Contact dloewenstein(at)hotmail.com to place your order.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Mural for a neighborhood, art for us all

A teacher's challenge, Whittier kids' dream, a muralist's guidance and residents' paintbrushes help Meldrum Park reflect city's heritage

by Lori Walsh
August 10, 2013
reposted from the Argus Leader

Meldrum Park eases into darkness. Color fades from view, and the grass, the trees, the people all soften into shades of charcoal and shadow as they cut and flow through the dusk. Muralist Dave Loewenstein perches his laptop on a plain white table. An image illuminates the night, projecting onto the 150-foot blank wall that stretches across the park itself. Figures and shapes appear outlined in bold black line like a child’s coloring book: a basketball hoop, a girl in a knit hat, a pair of hands grasping another pair of hands, lifting, perhaps, though it’s hard to say which hands might be the helpers and which the helped.

Rhythms of a basketball slap the silence, but the players only check the artists with the occasional sidelong glance. Loewenstein and his team — mural assistant Ashley Jane Laird, apprentice Nate Buchholz and documentarian Nicholas Ward — are beginning a design transfer, where the original design for the mural is outlined onto the wall. To Loewenstein, the basketball players nearby are collaborators. “Make sure they know what we’re here for,” he murmurs. “Make sure they know when it’s their time to paint.”

Design transfer can be intense in its precision. The image must somehow line up perfectly against its imperfect landscape. Mosquitoes and other unseeable things that bite are shaken loose from their grassy resting places to clip at ankles. The hour is late. The park is dark. Hardly anyone is watching. Finally, Loewenstein is satisfied with the position of the design. The first stroke of paint is swiped onto the wall without fanfare, the peach-colored hue imperceptible in the absence of light. The team will work throughout the night. Long after the basketball players have rolled home, long after the neighborhood has settled into rest, the artists will still be advancing new sections of design along the wall, repositioning carefully each time the projection shifts.

Loewenstein has just arrived from a distant town and a distant mural. What is it like to celebrate a completed mural in the sunshine and then, a few days later, start again in the dark with fresh canvas and fresh paint? It’s the ultimate blank page, this enormous wall. It feels inviting and intimidating at the same time. “It’s all one wall to me,” Loewenstein tells me without averting his eyes from the design. I can’t decide if he is joking or being appropriately philosophical. Maybe a little of both. One wall, stretching across decades, connecting cities and citizens and artists who have never met.

He doesn’t have much time to talk; he is focused on the task at hand. I leave the night to the artists and drive through the Whittier neighborhood, turning down the dimly lit streets where I once lived — past the St. Francis House, looping around Whittier Middle School, beyond the empty lot where the old gray church used to stand long after it had been transformed into a residence (though wayward strangers knocked on the door seeking salvation all the same). Manna Bakery, the old Flower Box, both asleep. All is quiet, save the crickets. And I am reminded: This is not where the story of the Meldrum Park mural begins.

This began ... in a classroom
Now that I think of it, it’s hard to say where exactly this story should start. (With the Contemporary Mural Movement of the 1960s? With 20 million immigrants flowing through Ellis Island?) For our purposes, let’s begin in teacher Lela Himmerich’s social studies classroom at Whittier Middle School in 2011.

It was spring, and Himmerich was taking her eighth grade class outside for some project-based learning. Her essential question: What is needed to keep the Whittier neighborhood vital? The students walked around the neighborhood with their teacher, who invited them to see things with “a whole new set of eyes.” Some of the students had been getting off the bus for three years at the middle school but had never taken the time to walk around and see more than the footprint the school inhabits. Soon, every team was popping with ideas about what could be done in the neighborhood, and they prepared to share those ideas with an audience of community decision makers, including Sioux Falls Mayor Mike Huether.

Students from Lela Himmerich's class present their neighborhood revitalization plan.
“They really wanted their ideas to happen,” Himmerich remembers. “The kids were super nervous. I told them, ‘Your ideas are amazing. You are amazing. You are ready for this. Let it shine.’ Then I just kept crossing my fingers that something would happen.” The ideas the students initiated were varied. They wanted to help paint the Manna Bakery, an authentic Mexican bakery and popular after-school stop for students. They thought the old fire station at Heritage Park could be transformed into a local history museum for firefighters. They wanted to see a mural inside Whittier Middle School and a larger mural on the blank, oft-graffiti-tagged wall that dominates Meldrum Park.

Everyone agreed the presentations were excellent. And then — not much happened. The mayor went back to his office. The students went back to class. But this isn’t where the story ends. Gigi Rieder, president of the Whittier Residents Association, had spent some time in San Antonio, where she was inspired by a six-story mural of the Virgin Mary painted on the external wall of a hospital. “There was art everywhere in San Antonio,” she explains. “It really made you say, ‘Wow.’ ” Which got her thinking about that ugly wall near her house by Meldrum Park.

Suddenly, the wall didn’t look so ugly any more. At least not in her imagination. And then there was Nan Baker, of the Sioux Falls Arts Council, who knew how to make things happen through grant-writing, who also knew what the kids at Whittier had been up to, who connected with Rieder and Himmerich, and who didn’t give up, even when the first Arts Council request for funds was denied by the United Way.

Enter muralist Dave Loewenstein — or at least a photograph of muralist Dave Loewenstein, which Baker came across right before she initiated a request for a prestigious “Our Town” grant through the National Endowment for the Arts. Are you following all of this? It’s called grass-roots community development. It’s not as common as it should be.

Fast-forward for a moment, a year or two from the grant-writing phase, to comments Loewenstein will make at the mural celebration: “This began at Whittier Middle School in a classroom with a teacher, Lela Himmerich, who had the foresight to teach not just the ABCs and the 123s, but to open her students up to what was right around them in their neighborhood, engaging them with real life and then not stopping when the class project was over, but taking it to the next logical level. Take it to the people who make decisions. What that means is, we need to pay a lot more attention to our teachers and our students in the public schools. They have great ideas that we need to follow through on.”

In case you were wondering, the outside of the Manna Bakery has already been painted. The students saw to that, too. And a mural inside Whittier Middle School is in the works. Look for it next year. As for the firefighter museum in Heritage Park ... anything is possible when the kids at Whittier put their minds to it.

Ellis Island of the Plains
The design team meetings begin in the darkness of winter. Loewenstein has been secured as lead artist for the Meldrum Park mural, and the process of engaging the community has begun. In other words, the wall will be painted, but what will be painted on it? What sort of story do we want to share with the neighborhood, the city, the world? Loewenstein isn’t telling us, he’s asking us. My daughter has been chosen as one of the Whittier student artists, and so I drive her to the first design team meeting, not sure what is ahead.

Presentation about the mural project at the Sioux Falls Public Library.
We meet Loewenstein at the Museum of Visual Materials, where he introduces a gathering of local residents to the concept of public art. Who will see this mural? Christians. Muslims. Police officers. People who don’t want police officers to know what they are doing. Students. Babies. Grandparents. Basketball players. People who only drive by but would never dream of stopping. People who plant themselves by the wall and study it for hours. People who don’t speak English and don’t yet have the language to describe the cold of a South Dakota January. People whose ancestors have lived here since before memory. In a word, everyone.

Who sees a painting in an art museum? Well, that depends. And sometimes, even in Sioux Falls, it depends on who has the money to pay the admission price. We attend as many design meetings as we can, where we are invited to think, to talk, to draw out the ideas of our imaginations and those of others. My daughter is paired up at one point with a woman whose English is accented, and I can see from across the room that both are struggling with communication. But then the markers come out and they draw. The woman wants the park to have a fence so her children won’t run into the street. My daughter wants the mural to have vibrant colors and playful imagery, so people can dance in joy. They each draw their visions, and then they understand.

Loewenstein tells us that Sioux Falls has been referred to as the Ellis Island of the Plains. At home that night, my daughter sketches the Statue of Liberty reaching out to swaying fields of native grasslands. She gives her drawing to Loewenstein, who accepts it as he does every other idea the design team offers — openly and with gratitude. At some point, it does occur to me that everyone in Sioux Falls might not love this mural. Not because there is anything wrong with it. Just because that’s the way people are.

A quote favored by Loewenstein (from Gwendolyn Brooks) comforts me:
“Does Man love Art? Man visits Art, but squirms. Art hurts. Art urges voyages — and it is easier to stay at home, the nice beer ready.”

I grew up in this neighborhood. My brother still lives here, in the house where I once lived, too. This is our place, and we know the colors and textures of it firsthand. When we see the final mural design, it does not make me squirm. It makes me want to spin around in celebration. Could people criticize what we are doing? Probably. In my experience, it is more likely they will discount it, marginalize it, overlook it. That’s just one of the things you learn growing up in this part of town. People have a tendency to underestimate you.

Design Team members present to the Visual Arts Commission.

This is a small village
Finally, after approval from a variety of city officials, paint can go on the wall. Community painting weekend arrives. This is when we leave the relative cocoon of design team meetings and bump brushes with a whole lot of people we’ve never met before, because everyone is invited to paint. And everyone does.

Iman Mahgoub often comes to Meldrum Park with her friends to drink coffee and let the children play. She used to live in a place where she was scared. But here, her children are safe. She and her daughter served on the design team. “This is a small village,” she says of the Whittier neighborhood. “People help show you where to go. It’s good for the kids. They aren’t in danger.” Akoat Mater swishes some yellow on the wall in the place where the artists have guided her. This is new for her, but her brush strokes are bold and sure. “Sometimes I color with my kids, but I’ve never painted like this before.”

At one point, I return from my car to find my daughter at the far end of the wall, painting next to a man I’ve never seen before, and my stomach tightens. Why would they paint so close together? She doesn’t know him. Isn’t Loewenstein paying attention? He could have placed them farther apart so they could paint in peace. And then I get it. They are painting in peace. They work around one another with respect and laughter. When they are done she comes skipping down the hill to tell me about her new friend. She couldn’t understand when he told her where he was originally from, but he owns a shop where he cuts hair. Maybe we could all get our haircuts from him someday?

Loewenstein understands all this. He plans it, I see now. He plants people right next to one another as they paint so they can begin to grow across the expanse of culture and language and life experience. They drip paint on one another, and they laugh about it. He knows there will be people who have never held a brush before and may never again. He knows that every time they pass by they will remember where they stood and what color they used and who stood next to them as they made their collective mark.

Kim Avilarivas has just painted part of a hand. As soon as I ask her about painting, she starts talking about Whittier Middle School. “People think it’s not safe or that there’s not a lot of people who care about you, but that’s not true at all,” she says. “We’re spirited and talented. We care about our community. We make it better. Art is a way to express how you feel. This mural expresses how we feel about our community. It feels like finally your voice was heard in the city of Sioux Falls.” Avilarivas is 13 years old, and, like most kids who grow up in this neighborhood, she feels the weight of judgment from those who grow up somewhere else. I’m not sure she’s any worse for that knowledge. It seems to me she’s plenty happy to prove them wrong.

I go home at the end of the day with paint on my hands. The paint is the color of skin but not the color of my skin. I can’t bear to wash it off.

Look, and keep looking
At some point, it occurs to all of us that Dave Loewenstein and Ashley Jane Laird aren’t actually from around here. In other words: Pretty soon, they have to leave. There’s no getting around it. “We are completely aware this is about much more than making a mural together or beautifying a neighborhood,” Loewenstein says. “This is about re-engaging the people with the neighborhood, encouraging people to have a new experience with the way they live — an experience that can compete with what we’re taught culturally, by the media, by our families.”

I spent two hours talking with Loewenstein on a day when painting had been rained out. I have pages of notes and quotes that I didn’t include here. In the end, I don’t think the muralist would have wanted this to be a piece about him, even though much of Sioux Falls may never fully realize just how significant he is on the national scene. He taught us that early on, now that I think about it. I’ve stood in front of a Monet painting and a van Gogh, among others. They were worth millions of dollars. Art reaches the pinnacle of financial clout when it can be picked up and moved, cordoned off. When it can change hands. When it can be protected from elements and from the fingerprints and flashbulbs of its admirers. When you can peer as closely as the security guard will allow and imagine the story of a life in the signature of pigment and brush stroke.

Loewenstein’s work holds the brush strokes of a community — hundreds of people. It’s a collage, a celebration, a mirror. It isn’t worth a penny, to some. And yet, it’s worth more than that Monet all the same, isn’t it? The artist spoke at the mural dedication: “Most of us, I imagine, look up trying to decode the matrix of symbols and patterns, wondering what they mean, what was intended by the artists, and should we be proud ... or offended? Good. Look, and keep looking. Ask questions.”

There is talk of hosting a story time in front of the wall, or an exercise class. Certainly the women of the neighborhood will be there still, coffee in hand, children dashing about their feet in a colorful blur. The basketball players have played ball throughout the transformation of neighborhood and neighbor, and they will continue as well, though more than a few now have flecks of paint on their shoes. My daughter has a new basketball of her own. You’ll see us there, shooting and missing, shooting and swishing.

There is a sense, a palpable sense, that the people around here may never look at a blank wall the same way again. They may never look at their neighbors the same way again. They may never look at their own hands the same way again.
Because this isn’t where the story ends.
This, perhaps, is where the story begins.

Written by Lori Walsh for the Argus Leader

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Sioux Falls completed mural at Meldrum Park

The World Comes to Whittier
August 2013

Located in Meldrum Park at the corner of 6th & Lewis
Sioux Falls, South Dakota

Lead artist - Dave Loewenstein
Assistant -   Ashley Jane Laird
Apprentice - Nate Buchholz

This project has been supported in part by:
Sioux Falls Arts Council
Sioux Falls Parks and Recreation Department
National Endowment for the Arts
Whittier Middle School
Whittier Neighborhood Residents Association

Initiated by Whittier Middle School students in teacher Lela Himmerich’s class in 2011, this community-based project is a true collaborative effort. Over the last year, the three visiting artists, Dave Loewenstein, Ashley Laird, and Nate Buchholz, met with more than two- hundred neighborhood residents and area student groups to do research, develop the images and paint the mural. In April, the completed design was unanimously approved by the Sioux Falls City Council. The project was coordinated by the Sioux Falls Arts Council and is supported by an “OurTown” grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Thank you to the Whittier Students, Lela Himmerich, our mural design team and the many volunteers who helped paint and coordinate.


"Our mural welcomes people to Whittier, a working-class neighborhood that embraces its heritage, celebrates its dynamic cultural and ethnic diversity, and looks forward to addressing and overcoming challenges to a prosperous and peaceful future. Our mural recognizes this as the past and present home to Native Americans from many tribes, as well as the place where settlers have come from across the globe. Our mural sings with a chorus of many languages and radiates with the colors of many cultures.  And, our mural shows the neighborhood working together to care for its natural beauty, the education of its young people, and the welfare of its most vulnerable residents.  Our mural is beautiful, engaging, and is the product of many dedicated hands and minds." 
- Mural Design Team Vision Statement

Below are details of the mural from left to right.


Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Mural Celebration!
Wednesday, July 31st

Join the artists, neighborhood, and distinguished speakers as we celebrate Meldrum Park’s (at the corner of 6th & Lewis) incredible new mural. Refreshments provided by the Whittier Residents Association.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Scenes from community painting

Since painting began in mid-July, Meldrum Park has been buzzing with activity. In just a couple of weeks over two hundred people have painted on the mural. Neighbors, parents, kids, friends and soon to become friends. People who have lived in the neighborhood for generations, others who have just come to the U.S. from far away places like Sudan, Nepal, and Guatemala. Countless more have stopped by to look and visit.


Thursday, July 11, 2013

Community Painting Weekend

Come Join Us!
Add your strokes to the new community mural in Meldrum Park 
(at the corner of 6th & Lewis)

All are invited. No art experience necessary.
Saturday, July 13  &  Sunday, July 14
10 am  -  4 pm

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Back in Sioux Falls - Transferring the mural design

After a long spring break (to work on murals in Songdo, South Korea and Waco, Texas) the Sioux Falls Mural Project is back in action! In late June, our apprentice Nate Buchholz led a group of volunteers in power-washing and priming the one hundred fifty one foot long wall. The result, a beautiful blank canvas.

Accessing the wall is still a big issue. The first lift we tried to use, an all-terrain scissor lift, was no match for our hills of soft soil. Now we're trying to make two forty-foot boom lifts work. So far, so good. It looks like we'll be able to reach most of wall, although the lifts need to sit on level ground to operate. This is an on-going challenge.

The first test was transferring the design. On a warm Monday evening we waited and waited for the sun to go down. Finally at around 9:30 it was just dark enough to see our projected image on the wall. Ashley drove the boom lift and traced the upper sections, while Nate and I worked down below. Nicholas Ward provided expert AV assistance and commentary. Between swats at flying insects and long intervals of orienting the projected image to the exact space it needed to go, we painted. At 1:45 am we finished the last bit happy to go home and nurse our various bug bites and know that the design was finally up.

This weekend, if it doesn't rain, we'll have community painting. Judging from the the throngs of kids in the park every afternoon, we should have a big turn out.

We also want to welcome our new Project Manager, Lela Himmerich who we've known as the the Whittier Middle School teacher that began this whole mural deal in the first place. In 2011 students in one of her classes were the ones who suggested making a mural as a way of improving the neighborhood.

And... Welcome Back to the former and now current Executive Director of the Sioux Falls Arts Council, Nan Baker. We are delighted that Nan has found time to steer the ship once again.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Mural design approved

On May 2, 2013 the Sioux Falls City Council unanimously approved the design for the Whittier Neighborhood Mural in Meldrum Park. The resolution that was made to record their approval reads:


WHEREAS, in April 2011, Whittier Middle School students in Mrs. Lela Himmerich’s eighth grade social studies class presented their hopes and dreams for a Neighborhood Revitalization Program that included development of an artistic neighborhood mural project;
WHEREAS, the Whittier Neighborhood Mural Project is coordinated by the Sioux Falls Arts Council and is supported by an “Our Town” grant from the National Endowment for the Arts;
WHEREAS, visiting artists Dave Loewenstein and Ashley Laird, and local apprentice artist, Nate Buchholz, collaborated with Whittier Neighborhood residents, Whittier Residents Association, students from Terry Redlin Elementary School, Whittier Middle School, Joe Foss and Washington High Schools, and the Sioux Falls Arts Council on the project’s vision statement, conducted research for the mural, and created the neighborhood design team, in which over 30 community meetings were held with over 100 participants;
WHEREAS, this project exemplifies community collaboration, creative place making, neighborhood identity and pride, and colorful community-based public art within a city park;
WHEREAS, Whittier Neighborhood residents and students will help the artists paint the mural to be located along the west face of an existing water reservoir structure at Meldrum Park during the month of July 2013;
WHEREAS, on April 8, 2013, the Sioux Falls Arts Council reviewed and unanimously approved the attached Whittier Neighborhood Mural Project design and placement at Meldrum Park;
WHEREAS, on April 9, 2013, and on April 16, 2013, both citizen boards—the Sioux Falls Visual Arts Commission and the Sioux Falls Parks and Recreation Board—reviewed and unanimously approved the attached design for the Whittier Neighborhood Mural Project and placement at Meldrum Park;
That it approves and authorizes the attached design and placement of a painted mural on City‑owned property at Meldrum Park.
Date adopted:

                                                                                                      Mike T. Huether 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Reviewing the Design

On March 8th the mural Design Team met to review the preliminary design. Ashley presented the scale drawing and then opened the conversation to comments and questions. Overall, there was a very positive response. Ashley and Nate took notes of the Team's suggestions which were brought back to Lawrence where we worked them into our next draft.

A month later we returned to share the updated design and color study in progress. The Design Team approved it by consensus. The following day we presented it to the Sioux Falls Visual Arts Commission. Our presentation included our vision for the mural, a mock-up of the mural at Meldrum Park and a description of the mural's content.

Our mural welcomes people to Whittier, a working-class neighborhood that embraces its heritage, celebrates its dynamic cultural and ethnic diversity, and looks forward to addressing and overcoming challenges to a prosperous and peaceful future. Our mural recognizes this as the past and present home to Native Americans from many tribes, as well as the place where settlers have come from across the globe. Our mural sings with a chorus of many languages and radiates with the colors of many cultures.  And, our mural shows the neighborhood working together to care for its natural beauty, the education of its young people, and the welfare of its most vulnerable residents.  Our mural is beautiful, engaging, and is the product of many dedicated hands and minds.

From left to right, the design includes:

·       Whittier Middle School students from Lela Himmerich’s class exploring their city, illuminating aspects that have cultural, historical and personal significance. Their research project is our inspiration and has been integral to developing the mural design.

·       Symbolic hands holding the Falls of the Big Sioux River as a gateway to the city. In the distance, the Statue of Liberty is visible welcoming those of us who at one time were immigrants to the U.S.

·       The waters of the river are gradually transformed into a march of nations familiar to residents as the annual Festival of Cultures parade. The figures here are taken directly from photographs of the march. The flags they carry are a representative sampling of the many countries of origin represented in the neighborhood, including South Sudan, Norway, Cuba, India, Lakota Sioux, Nepal, Somalia, Iraq, Ireland, Sri Lanka and El Salvador.

·       At the head of the march, the flags in the hands of marchers are replaced by seedlings and tools for planting. This signifies new immigrants’ intentions to put down roots in Sioux Falls, and that they represent more than just their homeland.

·       To the right of the march, large hands from above grasp ones from below in a gesture of play and / or lifting up or helping. One of these hands has Henna decoration, common among the cultures of Africa and southeast Asia, and popular at the Celebration of Cultures.

·       At the far right, young people from our design team manifest, through drawing, a hopeful vision of Whittier Neighborhood and Meldrum Park .

·       Tying the design together in the background are a series of design motifs taken from 1) the interior of the old Minnehaha Courthouse, 2) Lakota Sioux Star Quilt, 3) Henna tattoos and 4) East African textiles.

Design team members spoke passionately about their involvement in the project and the Visual Arts Commission approved the design 4-0.

On April 16th, the design went before the City's Parks and Recreation Department and also received unanimous approval. The last administrative hurdle will come in May when the design will be up for final approval before the Sioux Falls City Council.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Design Team in action

In our projects, development of the main ideas for the mural come from discussions and workshops held with the Design Team. These are folks who after coming to one of the community meetings are so inclined to choose themselves to be part of what I liken to the cast and crew of a small town play - think "Waiting for Guffman." Here in Sioux Falls our Design Team reflects many of the diverse aspects of the Whittier neighborhood. Among our twenty or so team members are artists, school teachers,  kids of all ages, the president of the Whittier Resident Association, arts council members, and even an f-16 pilot.

We depend on this group to help us understand the spirit of the place, its history, current challenges and hopes for the future. We also need the design team to help generate, either by making or finding, the sources of imagery that will eventually give life to the mural. To do this we begin simply by getting to know each other a little better. At the beginning of each meeting we sit in a circle, reintroduce ourselves, and then respond to a go-around question like, What's your favorite movie? Where's the best place to eat in town? What do you want to be when you grow up? or What's your nickname? The ice gets broken and we can dive into mural land.

The main focus of our design team workshops is to address questions that will help illuminate the shape and scope of our mural design. In Sioux Falls we first asked ourselves,
What do we know about Whittier?
Next we asked, What is the purpose of this project? What is its subject? Who are its authors? and Who will be its audiences?

Our answers were the fuel for collaborative drawing workshops where we tried to work out the relationships and relative significance of Whittier's culture and heritage. At one point I wanted the group to focus more on the continuing story of immigration and how it's impacted the area, so I asked an intentionally provoctive question -  Who's family at one time immigrated to the U.S.?  After a pause, all the hands went up except one, the artist Jerry Fogg. He is Yankton Sioux. From this, we launched into a discussion and then drawing session revolving around cultural diversity. At other times the prompts for drawing workshops included:

What makes a neighborhood?
Imagine Meldrum Park if it could be the way you wanted.
What are the challenges, obstacles, and misperceptions that the neighborhood faces, and how can they be addressed?

At the end of the session, each group stands up and presents their work. We do this not in order to critique the merits of style or drawing proficiency, but to teach each other about what we came up with and what we struggled with. The idea is to share our work and build off of each other, not compete. Two and a half weeks (and twenty-six meetings) later, we had amassed hundreds of drawings and written descriptions for the mural. The material was gold and enough for at least ten murals, I'm sure.

Our work now is mainly composition and editing. To start that process, Nate, Ashley and I met to draft a vision statement of sorts for our mural design. It's intended to give momentum and a frame for the design process. It's not written in stone and will continue to be sculpted as we go forward. Here it is as I read it to the design team at our last meeting.

Our mural welcomes people to Whittier, a working-class neighborhood that embraces its heritage, celebrates its dynamic cultural and ethnic diversity, and looks forward to addressing and overcoming challenges to a prosperous and peaceful future. Our mural recognizes this as the past and present home to Native Americans from many tribes, as well as the place where settlers have come from across the globe. Our mural sings with a chorus of many languages and radiates with the colors of many cultures.  And, our mural shows the neighborhood working together to care for its natural beauty, the education of its young people, and the welfare of its most vulnerable residents.  Our mural is beautiful, engaging, and is the product of many dedicated hands and minds.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Meetings, meetings, meetings and research

After a whirlwind three-weeks of meetings, drawing workshops and presentations, we're wrapping up the first stage of the mural project. In all, we held twenty-six meetings to gather input and begin to visualize the mural design. Here's a run-down of the groups we've met and or worked with so far:

Sioux Falls Parks Department
Whittier Middle School
Terry Redlin Elelmentary
Eugene Field Elementary
Hawthorne Elementary School
Washington High School
Whittier Neighborhood Association
Joe Foss Alternative School
Multicultural Center
Boys & Girls Club
Whittier Neighborhood after school program
Sioux Falls Arts Council
Community Meetings at the Public Library and Museum of Visual Materials
plus four meetings with our design team made up of local residents

This may look like a lot, but it really only scratches the surface of the the city's rich and diverse cultural landscape. Among others, I wish we could have visited with more students in high school and college, and more elders and artists in the community to hear their perspectives on this rapidly evolving city. Hopefully the word will get out and they will join us when painting begins.

When we weren't at a meeting, we explored the neighborhood and began to do research spurred by the conversations we'd been having.

With the help of middle school teacher, Lela Himmerich, we discovered the significance of Whittier's namesake, John Greenleaf Whittier, whose passionate and reasoned stance against slavery, advocacy for women's suffrage, and support for collective bargaining for workers coincided with many of the themes that emerged in our design team discussions.

A celebration of John Greenleaf Whittier in Amesbury, MA
We had a fascinating conversation with Jim Woster, a forty-three year employee of the Sioux Falls Stockyards, who recalled a dramatic shift in the workforce at Morrell's meatpacking plant (just north of the Whittier Neighborhood) due, in part, to labor disputes and new immigrants coming to town in the late 1980's. Jim reminded us that this wasn't the first wave of immigrants to be employed at Morrell's. In the early 1900's it was Irish, Norwegians, and other Northern Europeans who came to fill the difficult but well paying jobs.

Postcard of Morrell's Plant
Long a place of many cultures, characterized by Polish and German (then) and Ethiopian and Mexican (now) businesses, Whittier has been and continues to be Sioux Falls' most international neighborhood. This dynamic coming together of peoples in this unassuming part of town is celebrated every year at the city's Festival of Cultures event.

Sioux Falls Festival of Cultures
 A huge asset to Sioux Falls, Whittier's multicultural mix also presents challenges, most prominently the need for translators, translators of the more than eighty languages spoken there, and translators of cultural practice from religion, to family structure and gender roles.  In our design team meetings, we heard that some people outside of the neighborhood have misperceptions about Whittier - 'It's dangerous' and 'It's dying' among them. Imagining solutions to the challenges Whittier faces, and countering those misperceptions were the focus of our final drawing workshop with the design team.

As a community-based artist, I couldn't be more thrilled about working in Whittier. The place has an important story to tell that hasn't yet been shared with the greater community. Finding a way for the mural design to acknowledge and engage with its complexity and challenges in a positive, beautiful, and constructive way is our challenge.