In “Baltimore Love Project” last fall, we profiled artist Michael Owen’s and executive director Scott Burkholder’s joint mission to connect people through public art. With the goal of painting 20 LOVE murals across Baltimore city, they have made significant progress in that lofty aim; as of this writing they have completed 16. They returned to The New Century School in March to update TNCS on their progress and their future plans as well as to teach the elementary students about public art.
Mr. Burkholder was first to visit the elementary kids’ art class, and Mr. Owen stopped by 2 days later. Presenting to schoolchildren is something Baltimore Love Project (BLP) does frequently because kids are so receptive to their message, but TNCS elementary students were their youngest group so far. Mr. Burkholder began by asking the group, “What is art?” to which he received some pretty insightful answers, such as “art is a mixture of colors . . . imagination” and “art is making up your own theme.” He next showed the group several slides and asked whether what was depicted there qualified as art. When a Mark Rothko abstract painting flashed up on the projector screen, one boy said, “I see a portal leading to an imaginary scene . . .” (yes—he really said “portal!”) and another said, “it makes me feel really weird” and turned away. Needless to say, there were a lot of laughs that day!
Once the merriment died down, the group talked about different kinds of art—sculpture, music, performance art, collage, television shows, even cooking. “Humans use art,” said Mr. Burkholder, to “tell how we feel, to express an idea.” And with that, he threw out the “biggie.”
Why Does Art Matter?
The elementary students initially had mostly practical answers to this question, such as, “without art, we couldn’t make buildings,” but Mr. Burkholder pushed them to examine a deeper meaning. With Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother up on the screen, he explained that art should evoke strong feelings and encourage discussion. “Art gives us the opportunity to engage with it and with what the artist may have been feeling. It helps us think about what we are feeling, too,” he said. Art also helps us understand what our world is really like or puts a face to a story that might have otherwise been overlooked, such as the Lange photography does. Or, art might express something you wish were true. “It’s powerful to be able to share your ideas about the world with other people,” said Mr. Burkholder, “If you have the opportunity to change the way people think, then you can change how they act.” With art, he says, you can change the world.
As the visit drew to a close, the kids turned the tables on Mr. Burkholder, putting him on the spot. One girl asked him what he hopes to accomplish in his lifetime. It was a surprisingly mature question and revealed that she had really taken in his message. Mr. Burkholder did not miss a beat, however, and said simply, “I would like to help people value art.”
Mr. Owen’s visit took a slightly different tack, as you may have guessed it would. “I came here to show you some secrets about mural painting,” announced Baltimore’s reigning mural king. He showed the kids a time-lapse video of himself painting a LOVE mural (see it here) and then gave them the four-step list of instructions he uses for the BLP:
- Project a picture on a large vertical surface (i.e., a wall).
- Trace the picture with sidewalk chalk or pencil.
- Paint it in with primer.
- One day later, cover over with black paint.
Voilà! Mr. Owen then asked the kids what a LOVE mural makes them think of, feel, or do. Their responses ranged from profound to poignant. “It stops people from fighting,” said one; “I imagine what a lovely place Baltimore is,” said another. “It makes me think of the loved ones I’ve lost,” said one girl, tearing up. Mr. Owen must be accustomed to having such an effect on people. After all, he creates those murals, he says, “to inspire people to show how they love each other.” What really must have blown him away, though, was the response he got when he asked why the hands spelling out L-O-V-E on each mural are in black. “They can be anybody’s hands,” he began. “But there are four of them,” interrupted one child, “so it takes two people. That’s how the love starts to spread.”
By now the kids were literally itching to make some art. Inspired? Definitely. Having allowed all of their feelings and ideas to surface, they were now ready to turn them into something beautiful. “Have fun drawing,” said Mr. Owen, and rushed off to go inspire more people.
TNCS Kids Paint a . . .
Mural! Surprise! Art teacher Jenny Raccuglia said having BLP present was “really a very special treat.” Her idea all along was to have this lesson on public art culminate with her class creating their own mural. Like BLP, the students also wanted their mural concept to center on an inspirational word. There are currently more than 10 elementary students, so they needed a nice, big word to give each kid equal canvas space. See for yourselves what word these clever kids brought to colorful, glorious life in their collaborative work.
“This engagement,” said Scott Burkholder, “is what it’s all about. . . In our society, we tend to appreciate art because of craft and aesthetic, but we miss important aspects like the idea, the concept.” Getting people engaged, talking, thinking—that’s the true value of art.