Walls That Outlast Sandyby Eleanor J. Bader
Pablo Picasso famously declared that “art washes from the soul the dust of everyday life,” but it wasn’t until Hurricane Sandy that people interpreted his statement literally. And to commemorate the one-year anniversary, four massive artworks honoring the survivors have recently been unveiled.
The works were created by 60 employees of the City’s Summer Youth Employment Program who teamed with the Groundswell Community Mural Project, a 17-year-old Brooklyn-based organization that brings painters, youth, and community activists together to encourage social change through art. Located in Coney Island, Far Rockaway, Staten Island, and eventually Red Hook, areas dubbed the “recovery diaspora,” the murals are intended to celebrate human resilience. At the same time, the works call attention to ongoing problems and structural inequities—poverty, substandard housing, lousy schools, pollution, environmental contamination, and a dearth of healthcare providers, to name a few—that existed in these communities long before the waters rose.
Each mural nonetheless sends a largely positive message—hope for a better future and a more peaceful and sustainable world—that metaphorically washes away the dust. The Rockaway mural was created by 14 men who were part of a Groundswell program called Making His’tory. Lead artist Misha Tyutyunik, a 2006 graduate of Pratt Institute who now lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, explains that he and his team collaborated with the Local Initiative Support Corporation, better known as L.I.S.C. NYC, and the Ocean Bay Community Development Corporation, a group that has worked to revitalize the Rockaway Peninsula since 1999. Together they came up with a design for the front wall of the Challenge Preparatory Charter School, a place that played an important role as a post-storm community hub.
Tyutyunik emphasizes that while he “finalized” the design, taking care to insure that it was aesthetically pleasing, all of the concepts it includes—from the iconic A train that runs through the area, to a picture of the Challenge School as a lighthouse, or beacon—came from the youth. What’s more, while the actual painting took place over the summer, research to determine mural content began months earlier and involved groups of 14 to 21-year-olds trekking to the affected neighborhoods and speaking to residents.
Jules Joseph, Groundswell’s Youth Advocate, told the Rail that during several months this spring, approximately 25 teens and young adults surveyed local residents about what they’d like to see in their communities, thus enabling them to discuss the storm’s impact on them and their families. “A lot of folks wanted to acknowledge the ongoing struggle,” Joseph begins. “But they also wanted us to understand that they are determined to rebuild and believe that things will eventually be better than they were before Sandy.” Such optimism is conveyed in the murals’ themes, which include: “We Rose Above the Challenge” (the Rockaways), “People Helping People” (Red Hook), and “You Can Take Our Homes But You Can’t Take Our Hearts” (Staten Island).
Although some of the muralists were personally impacted by the storm—living in areas without electricity for days or weeks—their involvement with Groundswell helped them make the personal political. It also taught them something about human decency. “The amount of compassion people showed for their neighbors really resonated with everyone,” Joseph continues. “We spoke to one man, a contractor, in late May who talked about how his company was opening up houses that had been boarded up since November. He and his co-workers were funding the work themselves, out of pocket, which impressed us all.” Joseph notes that while this effort was particularly laudable, it was not anomalous, and interview teams heard countless accounts of spontaneous acts of generosity and kindness, from individuals climbing 15 flights of stairs to deliver food, medicine, and clean clothing to the homebound, to serving as Spanish and Chinese language interpreters for people in need.
“The kids did between 35 and 45 interviews, and afterwards they wanted to be accountable to both the communities they’d visited and to themselves,” Joseph continues. “There was a seriousness and a tenacity to respectfully reflect on the struggles these communities were facing in the art they created.” In addition, Joseph says that participants walked away from the research with a newfound appreciation for the importance of recording people’s experiences and stories.
Sunset Park resident Marcos Diaz, 19, became involved with Groundswell in October 2012 when he was referred to the program by the internship coordinator at South Brooklyn Community High School in Red Hook. He says that he took the stories he heard from community residents—about young students being bused from Coney Island to other neighborhoods, or about how scared folks were when the power went off—into the design process, putting sketches up on a wall and later working with other artists to come up with a coherent plan for the 35-foot mural that now hangs in the Rockaways.
Although Diaz was not new to mural-making, he says that he learned a lot because this time he was not painting directly on a wall, but was instead using parachute cloth that had been cut into seven five-foot panels. “It’s more time consuming to paint on a wall,” Misha Tyutyunik says. “When you paint on cloth it’s completely smooth, there is no need for scaffolding, and there are no weather constraints. Once you’re done painting, the mural is pasted on the wall and coated with something called Nova Gel to protect it from the elements.”
Both Diaz and Tyutyunik are pleased with the final product—and so are Groundswell’s community partners and folks at the Challenge School. “It did not feel like a job,” Diaz smiles, pointing to the sections of the mural that he created. “I love painting on walls; it gets me excited. I love that so many of the ideas the group pitched are in the mural. What else did I get from it? Leadership skills. How to collaborate.”
As he whips out his phone to show me some of the designs he’s crafted, he explains that he expects the skills he learned over the summer to come in handy when he launches his career as a muralist and illustrator. He also plans to stick around at Groundswell, he says, learning as much as he can before heading to college.
For its part, now that the summer is over and the four community murals are completed, Groundswell will move in new directions. Several Groundswell staff members are collaborating with street artist Swoon on a Sandy-inspired mural to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the storm; it will be located on the corner of the Bowery and Houston Street in Manhattan. Another similarly themed mural will go up in Industry City in Sunset Park, which is also home to a large group show of artists affected by Sandy that opens in mid-October. The show is curated by Rail publisher Phong Bui.
Groundswell looks forward to the completion of its 500th mural in 2014. To mark the occasion, staff members are working to formalize the lessons learned since 1996. “We’re taking the knowledge we’ve developed since we began this work and are creating best practice models to share with others,” Amy Sananman, Groundswell’s Executive Director, says. These practices, from mural development to youth empowerment, follow what she calls “scaffolding up,” an organizing strategy that aims to foster creativity and communication. Rather than a follow-the-dots guide to organizing, the materials will reflect on what worked and did not work, based specifically on Groundswell’s experience. The group’s post-Sandy efforts surely will be counted among its successes.
Groundswell’s 17th Annual Art Auction will take place on Monday, October 7th, 7 – 10 P.M.
The Staten Island mural is located at New Dorp High School, 465 New Dorp Lane. The Coney Island work is in the Santos White Garden/Lighthouse Mission, 2114 Mermaid Avenue, in Brooklyn. The Challenge Preparatory Charter School, site of the Far Rockaway mural, is located at 710 Hartman Lane. Groundswell staff members are continuing to search for a viable wall in Red Hook; thanks to Sandy, several available outdoor walls have proven too unstable for mural installation.
ContributorEleanor J. Bader