Conversation with Alex Cook, Artist and Director of YOU ARE LOVED Mural Project in Massachusetts
The YOU ARE LOVED mural project collaborates with schools, worship groups, artists, businesses and organizations of all types, creating murals using five messages, larger than life and on permanent public spaces:
YOU ARE LOVED * YOU ARE NEEDED * YOU ARE IMPORTANT * YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL * YOU CAN DO IT
Alex has worked with hundreds of community members in three years to create over 30 murals in nine states and two countries.
“When I started painting public murals several years ago what really lit me on fire was the immediacy of taking an image from my private imagination and putting it in a public place where thousands will see it,” explained Alex. “I had this very spiritual feeling, that you can take spiritual ideas, the purest ideas, and put them in unexpected dark, earthy places!”
In late 2013, Alex was asked to create a mural in an elementary school in New Orleans. The principal shared that the students didn’t feel safe in the community, and this definitely got in the way of learning. The principal then challenged Alex to create a mural that fostered a culture of safety for the students.
“That is a substantial ask for a piece of art,” Alex thought. “But I believe art has the power to guide culture. I just needed to know what I could do to address this problem.” So Alex looked for inspiration in his own prayers. What occurred to him was that society is often too subtle about the very thing kids should feel, that they are loved. “We should just say what we mean!” This was the breakthrough impetus for Alex. He wrote down several of his now familiar phrases in that first mural.
“When I create these murals in schools I can actually see the teachers and staff visibly relax! The things they feel all the time about the kids – you are loved – was now ok to have in this public place. They felt they couldn’t talk about that before, that they just had to do their work.”
The Power in These Particular Statements
“I chose these statements because I considered the times when I have felt most weak, most incapable, most threatened in my life,” shared Alex. “What were the things I needed to know that would have helped me if I understood the truth of them?”
Alex believes that with all the problems in society, the fear and terror, self-hatred and loathing, the darkness that people feel, it usually has something to do with not feeling loved.
“By putting these murals of confident, unapologetic statements of support for people right in dark places of fear, larger than life, I believe the message will land in someone’s heart. There is someone, maybe a teacher, a friend or family member – I like to think it is God – who loves you. If you still say, there is no one, then I can say confidently, I am the artist and I DO love you!”
And year after year, the words will be on public walls, larger than human scale and having that authority in size, and stating its powerful message to people who need to believe it for themselves.
A couple of Christmases ago Alex received an email from a stranger who indicated that he was thinking of ending his life and then he saw one of the murals.
“I screwed up so many times and had let people down, and I was contemplating making a seriously bad decision, ultimately my final decision… I took a walk and saw your mural. I felt like it was a personal message to me. I almost started to cry… It greatly lifted my heart.”
With Such a Good Message, Why Is It Resisted?
Culturally there appears to be a push to say that in order to be honest, to be real, the negative things in life have to be pointed out, to be exposed and the positive things in life overlooked. The downside of that is that if that is all people hear and see then that is all they might believe. The YAL project addresses that and acknowledges there is darkness by going to those darkest places in order to shine a light. As Alex sees it, “The fact that we are loved inherently IS being realistic! To me, it is a deeper sense of realism. But it needs to be reasserted, reasserted, reasserted especially in those dark places.”
One of the YAL mural projects was in a state hospital for the criminally insane and those who are being evaluated for the justice system. Inmates must be continuously watched by guards who have a very challenging job. Alex remembers fearing strong disapproval by the guards, such as Who are you to come into this place and make these statements? You know nothing about what we deal with, what we have seen.
Alex had been a volunteer chaplain for seven years in the Massachusetts correctional facilities so he wasn’t naïve about the issues the guards had to deal with.
“While I was working, I mentally reached out in a spiritual prayer. I was feeling very self-conscious and had to find my peace and confidence. What came to me was this, ‘This work isn’t worth anything if there are places where it is true and places where it isn’t true!’ I felt an inner truth that nothing could convince me that the statement, You Are Loved, wasn’t true.”
The next thought that came to him has since become a foundation stone for him in all his projects: “Are you willing to look like a fool in front of these guards who have a difficult job? Are you willing to make this assertion and have them think you are foolish? Yes, I am!”
He realized that even if there are people who don’t see the substance of these statements in the same way he sees them and may even think they are dumb, well, it doesn’t change the fact of Alex’s basic understanding of the universe. YOU ARE LOVED, to Alex, is a universal fact and not based on how your life has gone or your human history.
Alex then felt at peace and his confidence about the value of these messages returned. Soon, he had great conversations with the guards and interactions with the inmates. “It felt so wonderful, so affirming, to be able to communicate to all of them that their loveableness endures despite this place of darkness.”
The Spiritual Message in the Creative Process
In the mural locations it is the communities – inmates, churches, homeless shelter residents, schoolkids – who actually paint the walls. Alex designs the mural then creates the coloring book to follow and provides the paint. While people are painting, Alex is encouraging and coaching. “People are scared to take up a paintbrush, afraid to make mistakes. But it is art, it is all good! It’s my way to love people, to show them that they are loved in doing this creative work. So I create a space to feel safe, productive, creative, loved. It is such tender work. People get to know each other, express themselves, be friends with each other. And they know they are contributing a message that will be seen and felt 10 years from now! Love – it is a powerful unifying force.
Alex says he wants to have YAL murals in a diversity of facilities, especially where people say it isn’t easy to do, so that it cannot be said that YOU ARE LOVED is true in one place but not true in another. It is true everywhere.
What Can You Do to Make a Difference in Your Community?
Alex shared some tips for people wondering how to get started.
- Really listen to your inner voice that inspires you and makes you want to work and work and work. What little shining star of love do you find in your own desire that is so beautiful that you are willing to work and not get paid! What would you cry your eyes out if you couldn’t do it?
- Getting things done is a lot of work. The only thing that has enough substance when you already have too much work is that love that tells you, “I can’t wait until this is a real thing!”
- How do you know what that is? Look at what you want to do, your truest desire, and believe in that desire MORE than in the voices that say it won’t work. This is it – you face all the resistance and keep on listening to the inner voice and work, work, work.
For more information about You Are Loved mural projects, go here.