Strengthening Friendships, Creating Art: TNCS Welcomes Back Baltimore Love Project

Welcome BLP!

Over two art lessons, BLP helped TNCS elementary students understand what public art is and how it can help communities.

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!

BLP executive director Scott Burkholder

BLP executive director Scott Burkholder visited TNCS elementary art class March 19th.

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.

TNCS elementary art class

The elementary students wax poetic on their feelings about art with Baltimore Love Project’s Scott Burkholder.

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.”

Q&A with Michael Owen

BLP artist Michael Owen demonstrated how collaborating on art can change environments and cultures in meaningful ways.

DIY Muraling

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:

  1. Project a picture on a large vertical surface (i.e., a wall).
  2. Trace the picture with sidewalk chalk or pencil.
  3. Paint it in with primer.
  4. 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.”


TNCS elementary students sketch out their ideas for the mural.

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.

Friendship mural

The finished product shows friendship as conceptualized by the TNCS elementary students but also represents friendship in another way: the students joined together—engaged in this project together—in an act of joyful creation. It was made by friends to spread friendship. Way to go, kids!

“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.

Baltimore Love Project

The New Century School thinks Michael Owen and Scott Burkholder are what you might call “lovely” people. Together, these two are spreading (literally!) a message of community and social involvement across Baltimore City called the Baltimore Love Project. You may have received the memo without even realizing it. It comes in the form of a mural-sized silhouette of four disembodied hands spelling out L-O-V-E on the exterior walls of various city buildings. By the end of 2012, Baltimore neighborhoods will be graced with 20 such murals, ranging in size but all depicting the same striking image.

this large mural fronts a building on Broadway Ave.

Broadway Ave. mural in Baltimore

It makes you stop and think, this image. And that’s the whole point, according to Owen, the artist and project creator, and Burkholder, the Executive Director. “BLP is about helping people understand that public art matters and providing access to it. It’s a powerful platform for social change,” says Burkholder. To BLP, every street corner, city wall, and alleyway is a potential canvas, a canvas that should engage the community.

LOVE sticker spruces up a fire hydrant in Patterson Park

LOVE is everywhere!

“What might change,” asks Owen, if a powerful positive message was very publicly displayed for a city-wide audience? “What would people start to do differently?” What BPL wants is to instigate, to stir up some discussion. The art is, indeed, stirring, but it’s a very gentle confrontation. It’s certainly hard to be unaffected on some level by such a large, physical piece. It’s a challenge at its most basic level. “LOVE,” it simultaneously shouts and whispers–is it a command, or is it a request? Is it a dance? The work is deliberately minimal, says Owen. It’s a distillation–no details–so it speaks to all people, not any one particular group, yet it affects everyone a little differently. It’s a true democratizer.

TNCS, in sharing very similar values of community and democracy, has formed what promises to become a very fruitful partnership with BLP. “Schools have become a big part of the project,” says Owen. “It’s a natural fit.” Schools provide the ideal point of engagement with the larger community. Moreover, school-age kids fairly bubble over with what he calls “unreserved excitement” to talk and respond with “raw thoughts about elemental things.” Like love, for example.
Says Alicia Danyali, Head of TNCS , “The benefits of this partnership will not only allow the school to support community art projects, but will in turn enable us to develop educational opportunities for the entire TNCS community.”  In exchange for TNCS selling BLP merchandise (available for purchase at TNCS’s online store) for fundraising, BLP will create one of their murals in the school’s name as well as provide some on-site education and maybe even some inspiration. Students will attend an assembly on public art and how the theme of love is represented, the primary and elementary classes will work together to create a school mural, and there may be a visit to Owen’s studio in the works to get a first-hand look at the process.
TNCS and BLP are collaborating to make art and the social and cultural revolution it can inspire accessible to all. What’s not to love?

students pressed and painted hands for these stepping stones for TNCS front garden

TNCS students make hand art, too!