Thursday, April 2, 2009

Behind the mural: how public art impacts us all

Erik Miles, Sunset Park Unity Mural, 2001, Brooklyn.
Courtesy of Groundswell Community Mural Project

By Aaron Short

(Published in the 4.2.09 issue of 24/Seven)

For decades, New York City, and Brooklyn in particular, has been home to some of the country’s most iconic and iconoclastic public murals. It astounded artist Janet Braun-Reinitz that no one had written a compilation about the history of such an influential and fragile art form.

“It seemed to me that no one was going to do this,” said Braun-Reinitz, who began making murals in Nicaragua in 1984. “I am not a writer so I asked Jane (Weissman) to join me. We had no idea what kind of enterprise it would be.”

Published in early February, Braun-Reinitz and Weissman’s comprehensive and colorful new book, On The Wall, catalogues the role of community murals in the city’s history while making critical distinctions between these murals and those commissioned by a single artist. All the murals included in the book are painted outdoors and involve the collaboration between artists and community members. Not all of the murals still exist, as many have been painted over or razed as a building suffers water damage or changes ownership.

“A building goes down, a building goes up, rain, wind and sun can destroy murals,” said Weissman, former director of Green Thumb. “It’s an ephemeral art form, which is why such a lot of artists stay away from doing it,” said Weissman.

That has not stopped a plethora of artists including Lady Pink, Lee Quinones, and Leola Bermanzohn from participating in community murals throughout Brooklyn. Despite the push and pull of developing community consensus, which had troubled two projects in Park Slope, the unique experience of receiving immediate feedback from neighborhood residents that can enhance a work has proved to be a draw for many artists.

“Being on the street during the process is a great thing,” Braun-Reinitz said. “People ask questions, why does something have a particular color or did you know that a figure has six fingers. In the end, you walk away from it and it belongs to the community.”

With over 150 images of murals in their collection, the co-authors have several favorites. A memorial mural by the Crown Heights Youth Collective for a slain police officer that was edited to include two victims of the 9/11 tragedy is one of the most poignant murals in the book. Murals by Groundswell and Artmakers are also notable for the stories behind them and a group of murals that tackle air pollution and violence, painted by Joe Matunis and El Puente’s mural arts program in South Williamsburg, are particularly and consistently striking.

“An organization that doesn’t primarily make art realizes that putting art up on a wall is a community organizing tool,” said Weissman. “In Brooklyn there are more walls because real estate is not so expensive and there are more organizations here who have something to say.”

On the back cover of the book is one of Weissman own mural, “When Women Pursue Justice,” made in collaboration with a dozen female artists, but sticking to the theme of notable women through history who have fought for justice. The mural has an almost symphonic quality, of several moving pieces expressing their own styles while maintaining an overall thematic balance.
“We talk about murals of opposition and murals of affirmation,” said Braun-Reinitz. “The word protest involves a call to wintness, which can have a positive connotation too, and these murals are witnessing something.”

On The Wall by Janet Braun-Reinitz and Jane Weissman is available on

On April 6, at the James E Davis Building, 80 Hanson Place, an exhibit celebrating the book will open. For more information, call 718-230-0492.


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