What I learned from painting this mural

Final Mural
Final image of the mural completed.

You know what you know until you know more than you know you know less than you knew before.

That’s just my way of confusi…I mean explaining to you that I learned a lot in the process. First I had to be introduced to the people who were doing the work. There were language barriers to overcome. She speaks Spanish and a little english. I speak english and a little Spanish. Estoy aprendiendo Español. We did the dance back and forth both using google translate and punctuating with in person meetings by accident on the first floor of my friend Mark and Leo’s apartment building. The moments where I thought I understood what was happening only to find out later I didn’t really catch the deeper meaning. This is a part of my daily experiences here in Mexico City DF. My vocabulary is widening but my grammar is suffering. I get lots of side way stares when I try to explain complex thoughts. Fortunately I have patient friends and those who aren’t have disappeared. Rejection is God’s protection.

The wall from Google Maps
The wall from Google Maps

The beginning. You sort of have to see where the wall started from to understand how far it has come. I mean I’d object if I were staring at this wall all day. It screams for help. But this project is not just about creating ambiance in the zone, but it is about activism. The Mexican Government flush with funds to do repairs from the September earthquakes is allowing buildings to hang in the balance. This is risking the lives and homes of so many people and nothing is happening to change it. Behind this school where the wall sits in front is a 10 story building ready to fall into the courtyard. What we set out to do here is draw attention to the closed school. Raise awareness that while life has gone on for many there are still others who have no voice or money to do the repairs. Murals are so much a part of the culture here is Mexico it makes sense to communicate and raise awareness with a grand project.

68 murals. Why 68? 68 indigenous cultures in Mexico. Why the focus on images of women? Well it’s the time in all cultures to raise awareness and bring forward the strength of women. How did this gringo get involved? Well over a bottle of mezcal and navidad festivities of course. I said to my friend, “One of my goals this year is to do art work in the streets of Mexico City.” I hadn’t done any since college. I’d been politically active but all the images created were for galleries. It just felt like it was time. I keep looking at all this work in the streets and never quite sure how to make that a reality. Mexico City is a place of opportunities so it seemed fair that this is where it would start.

Symbolism in the mural. 68 indigenous cultures and 68 colors of maize in the pattern at the top. Then I noticed the finials and thought…well duh…corn. I did grow up in Indiana so this was not news to me. The space became a maze of maize randomly placed to create a pattern of colors. Had to find a solution that worked because there was not an even bricked surface to work with. All I knew was the size of the bricks would be relatively the same throughout. I didn’t want to create a clean lined design when the surface wouldn’t cooperate. I also wanted to have space for others to participate who maybe had never held a brush before. Hoila! Patterns save the day but are no easier to paint on this surface than a pure line. I ended up with the maize as a clear metaphor and the weaving pattern to create a subtle background.

Paper sketchbook
I started on paper

Process. The space where I painted the figure was a bit smoother but still had so many textural issues it was mind boggling. I wanted to bring in the loom, but when I first sketched it on paper it didn’t really work as a horizontal composition. I took it from paper to Photoshop so I could separate out the loom and color the background without draining my purple marker. I wanted to exaggerate the perspective so from across the street you feel as though the loom was being pulled towards you.sketchProgress3It also created some space for the figure which would of been blocked by the yellow guardrails keeping cars off the sidewalks when school let out.

Challenges. Lots of things happened along the way to completion. First consider the environment. On a 4 lane road with heavy traffic so the pollution was quite intense. There was a fair amount of foot traffic, but the bigger problem was the mound of rubble in front of the space. Each day I came home covered in a layer of dirt and soot. My feet were black. My ankles chewed up by mosquitos and spiders. I gained a patina of red from the blistering sun. I never learned my lesson and brought a hat along, but fortunately others were nice enough to see my discomfort and rescue. The bigger part was the overall texture of the bricks. Wow. Just mind bogglingly hard to work with. Part of the reason I went so graphic was due to that texture. It was relentless and clearly we weren’t going to resurface the wall to make all this happen. A challenge concurred to the best of our abilities.

People. By far the best part of this entire process was getting to work with friends and strangers…who became NEW friends. There was the guy from Switzerland who was just walking by and stopped to help for an hour. There were all my old friends who spent time working away. There were the new friends whom I got to know even better throughout the process. It’s just not this way in my studio. The studio is a controlled environment. I have light. Air. Water. Clean floors (usually). I have food and beverages on hand. A restroom without thinking. I’m not worried someone will walk off with my bag or camera. The wall is flat. The paper is sturdy. The brushes are well kept and clean. My oils are a desired pigment meant for that use. But I relished every bit of the challenge. I loved working with people who had no experience painting. It reminded me of the things I enjoy about teaching, but without grades, attitudes, administrators, and everyone wanted to be there.

Final. Is it my best work? No. Absolutely not. Is it the best I could do in this moment. Yes. Absolutely. I could list all the things I’d do differently, but the reality of it is that we met the goal and exceeded in so many ways. I’d have to consider if I’d do it again carefully. It took 30 hours of prep and another 40 hours of work on site. I did not sleep the entire time because my brain was trying to troubleshoot throughout the night. My body is finally recovering. My mind is still asleep. I loved it all.