Nonfiction: Art on the Wall Inspires Duoby Eleanor J. Bader
Fort Greene artist Janet Braun-Reinitz likes walls. But not just any wall. She likes well-preserved, smooth surfaces on the sides of buildings; they’re perfect for creating murals, she says. “There’s nothing like standing on scaffolding and painting,” Braun-Reinitz continues; or hearing comments from passers-by. There's also something she loves about the camaraderie of working with others as opposed to the isolation of a studio. “The process is renewing. When you’re on the wall people see you not as an arty-farty person, but as a worker,” she laughs.
Braun-Reinitz began mural-making in 1984 when she joined Artists for a New Nicaragua on a large-scale project in the then-fledgling revolutionary democracy. “That’s when I got the bug,” she says. Since then, she has painted between fifty and sixty murals—she’s lost exact count—in five countries: England, Georgia, Italy, Nicaragua, and the United States.
In 1987 she met Jane Weissman, who was the executive director of Project GreenThumb, a New York City effort to encourage community gardening in vacant lots. “A program had been designed called Artists in the Gardens,” Weissman says. “It was meant to give local groups a say in choosing the artists they wanted to work with.”
When Braun-Reinitz heard about the GreenThumb program, she applied and was selected. Her project, a mural in a Brownsville garden, brought Braun-Reinitz to Weissman’s attention and the women quickly became collaborators. Among other ventures, the two worked together on “When Women Pursue Justice,” a three thousand and three hundred square foot mural in Bedford-Stuyvesant that was completed in 2005.
They’ve also co-written On The Wall: Four Decades of Community Murals in New York City, a book just out from the University Press of Mississippi. A six-year endeavor, the text includes one hundred and fifty color photos of one hundred and forty murals created since 1968. The authors call it “a window into the unwritten history of neighborhoods.” It’s also a brief history of the U.S. mural movement, chronicling its spread from 1967’s “Wall of Respect” in Chicago to murals done in Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.
The idea for On The Wall started with Braun-Reinitz. “The more I paint murals the more I realize how ephemeral they really are,” she says. “My hope is that now that there’s a record of New York City murals through 2007, as they go forward people will continue to document the history.”
The book includes a wide array of voices—individual artists as well as mural-painting groups—and discusses a wide array of public art scattered throughout the five boroughs—ranging from the purely decorative to the overtly political. It also chronicles the occasional tensions between muralists and community members over ideology and aesthetics.
On The Wall describes artist Mary Patten’s 1977 First Street Mural in Park Slope, a work created with teens from Project Reach Youth. The theme, opposition to the era’s pervasive redlining and arson for profit, rankled community members who saw the depiction as overly combative and likely to “bring down property values.” The searing conflict ended when the mural was obliterated by paint bombs.
Twenty-two years later, in 1999, Amy Sananman, a tenant organizer and artist who now heads the Groundswell Community Mural Project, brought participants in the Teen Women’s Project of the Center for Anti-Violence Education together to create “Peace is Not a Dream in Storage.” The mural was painted on a wall above a Park Slope Rite Aid, thirty yards from the subway entrance, and just nine blocks from Patten’s destroyed artwork.
According to On The Wall, “not until the mural was finished did objections—never previously expressed—arise from a segment of the community. The controversy caught the artists unaware. No one had spoken out against the mural at design workshops open to the public.” While the painters canvassed the neighborhood to determine which images were causing the commotion, their efforts came to naught. “A small group of residents circulated a petition,” the book recounts, “demanding that Rite Aid remove this ‘insulting and ugly mural,’ because, in the words of one homeowner, ‘it makes our ‘hood look ghettoish.’”
Shortly afterwards the controversy abruptly ended when someone surreptitiously whitewashed the wall.
On The Wall also presents a detailed account of a joint Hasidic/Caribbean Black effort to create a mural in Crown Heights following the 1991 deaths of seven-year-old Gavin Cato and 29-year-old Yankel Rosenbaum. Although the initial “Crown Heights Unity Wall” was defaced, a subsequent effort, “A Flower for Gavin and All Our Children Left Untimely,” lasted until the wall was resurfaced several years later.
Promoting peace and ending gun violence are frequent mural motifs say Braun-Reinitz and Weissman. Other issues, like the spread of AIDS, improving public education, and ending police brutality are also common. But they note that one issue—the need for affordable housing—has coursed through New York’s murals since 1968, popping up again and again in every part of the city. “The same impulse to fight gentrification exists today that existed in 1968,” Weissman says. “You can see images of bulldozers and raised fists on many walls.”
While such representations are ubiquitous in Brooklyn, one topic separates the “borough of churches” from the rest of the city—the religion of baseball. “No other place celebrates baseball the way that Brooklyn honors the Dodgers,” Braun-Reinitz says. “There are baseball murals throughout Crown Heights, around Ebbetts Field and in East New York.”
Although Braun-Reinitz confesses a love for the game, she and Weissman are drawn to murals that question social assumptions. Indeed, most of the photos in On The Wall reflect this propensity. “Not every mural needs to be political, but the underbelly does not rise very often anymore,” Braun-Reinitz quips. “Most murals these days are subtle in their politics. There are not a lot that are edgy.”
So will she and Weissman step in to fill this niche? Perhaps someday, but for now they’re intent on promoting On The Wall, and exhibiting photos from the book in galleries and community centers throughout the city. They also recently obtained funding to restore several crumbling murals in Harlem.
Janet Brown Reinitz & Jane Weissman, On The Wall: Four Decades of Community Murals In New York City, by Janet Braun-Reinitz and Jane Weissman, foreword by Amy Goodman and Denis Moynihan, University Press of Mississippi.
ContributorEleanor J. Bader
Eleanor J. Bader is a teacher, writer, and activist. She writes the monthly Stoking Fire column on rhrealitycheck.org, and also contributes to feministreview.org, ontheissuesmagazine.com, The Progressive and other progressive, feminist publications and blogs.