Several months ago many of you contributed generously to support the creation of 10 inspiring murals in public spaces in Boston and Detroit. (Click Here to read, “Public Murals That Touch Hearts.”) Thank you Community – $20,000 was raised! Artist Alex Cook shares what happened while painting at urban schools in Detroit.
Big Lesson from School: Look for Invisible Boundaries to Break and Make Connections
“A big piece of the power of these mural projects is connecting with the individuals on the scene – people who are going about their daily work and not expecting to be part of the project, but surprisingly and happily for them, they engage,” explained Alex. “Lunch-Ladies, teachers, janitors, parents, and security guards picked up brushes, with a little encouragement from me, to join the students to paint. They are delighted! It is like we break an invisible boundary that says they can’t paint – I reach over an invisible line with a brush and they cross it to engage. And the so-called boundary is broken.”
“Isn’t this a simple metaphor for crossing other invisible boundaries, like faith worship? There is no real boundary but we live for decades as if there is. And what a reward for dissolving the boundary! The feeling of fellowship where we all feel loved together. What a reward for breaking a boundary!
Another School Lesson: Be Generously Responsive to Additional Asks
The theme for the month that played out in all the schools was the opportunity for an extra improvised event, like painting more murals – even painting a desk!
At each school, the reaction to the painting process and especially the finished result of art and message was “Can you do more?” And in every case, Alex initially didn’t see how he could squeeze in the extra projects but, he says, “When the inspired mind says there are more riches for everyone, including myself, it can be done.
Sampson-Webber Leadership Academy (Middle School)
“When we finished ‘You Can Do It’ in the cafeteria, and I was packed up and ready to go, a teacher ran after me to ask if I could paint a picture on a blank wall in her classroom. She had been so touched by the creativity she wanted more. If I could just draw it out her students would paint it. So I drew a big tree!
“Another teacher saw this and pleaded with me to create a mural in her classroom – a room full of third-graders trying to learn math. As I began to draw a landscape it was clear the kids would rather watch me than learn math. It was amazing – I could tell from their sounds behind me that it was just wondrous to them. It was so special, to feel the effect of art being created and appreciated! Who knows what future effect this will have on them.”
Alex said that he felt this sense of wonder and amazement the whole time he was in Detroit. There were a couple of middle-schoolers obviously cutting class who kept popping up over a couple of days at the “You Can Do It” creation. They wanted to paint, but they were supposed to be in class. Finally, on the second day of asking, Alex relented. “I figured they would last five minutes and be bored. But they stayed for two hours! Multiple teachers asked me, ‘How did you get these kids to do this? They won’t do anything!’ I didn’t do it, art is awesome…I just made the connection.”
“Tough kids? Maybe – but breathlessly amazed by what we were doing.”
Burton International Academy (Middle School)
About halfway through creating “You Are Loved” the security guard at the entrance to school asked Alex if he could pull together the extra money would Alex paint the school’s mascot of a bobcat on his desk…so the kids could see it when they came to school? Turns out this guard had attended the school 40 years before so he had quite an affection for it.
“At first I didn’t see how I could do it in the time I had left, but then I thought, heck I can draw a bobcat!” So Alex asked the guard to show him his desk. “He lit up like a lightbulb! Pretty soon there was a semicircle of kids around the security desk watching. They were amazed – and the security guard was over the moon! And the bobcat came out super.”
Mumford Academy and High School (Two High Schools)
The plan was to do two murals, both “You Are Loved”, one for each school. One of the murals, a city-scape, was extra long and would take a lot more time and seven seniors to complete!
While finishing up the first mural, the Principal mentioned there was another empty space upstairs that sure could use a mural and a message. “By this time, I knew I had to say Yes I can do it! But I figured that to go faster, I could do it myself without kids helping. Nope, the kids really wanted to paint. So I told them to come back after school – and not tell anyone! Four kids showed up and we painted You Are Beautiful. It came to me to draw separate gems to show that beauty is individual.”
On the last day, Alex brought 35 bumper stickers that show You Are Loved and he gave some to the Principal. Ten minutes later the Principal came back and wanted to buy all of the bumper stickers to give to all the teachers in the school. It’s definitely a message that people love to see, and feel.
Conversations Reveal Life-Lessons
One of the huge benefits is having the interesting conversations with the student-painters over a broad spectrum of topics. Sometimes the kids start quietly and need a little coaxing. But they always warm up and the conversations are always good. One kid, Desmond, was particularly meaningful to Alex.
“Why are you doing this with these words,” Desmond asked me. The way he asked was especially sincere. So Alex explained, “I believe that this message, You Are Loved, is the most important message for people to hear. If 350 kids see this every day, and every year 350 more kids see this message for 10 years – that is a lot of kids being told every day that they are loved. And then I shared with him the email I got from someone who saw the message of a mural in Boston and it stopped him from committing suicide.”
Desmond paused to think about that. Then he said quietly, “It would make my life if I found I had been useful like that to someone.”
“That is exactly how I feel, Desmond!”
To learn more about Alex Cook and the You Are Loved Murals, go here: You Are Loved Murals