Together We Thrive Mural Project | Michael B. Schwartz

January 8, 2011 started out like any other day in sunny Tucson, Arizona. The old Pueblo was abuzz that morning, the mild winter drawing annual snowbirds and festivals.  A few hours later multiple gunshots at the “Congress on Your Corner” would shock and tear local social and cultural fabric and shake our national identity.  U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, a Tucson local, and eleven others were wounded, six lay dead including nine year-old Christina-Taylor Green, born September 11, 2001.

Our community was in mourning, attempting to come to terms with the magnitude of what had just happened. The shooting brought national exposure to a politically charged environment that has produced repeated threats against Congresswoman Giffords as well as SB 1070, legislation intended to shut down the Tucson Unified School District Ethnic Studies program.

In the weeks and months following the tragedy, many new memorial projects were birthed. Participants, board members and the public were requesting that the Tucson Arts Brigade (TAB), whom I work with, to create a mural memorial. In the spring of 2011 TAB hosted a series of public organizing meetings; as with all our projects we created a planning team comprised of a minimum of five community volunteers. The group settled on restoring a 1997 TAB mural located on bustling Fourth Avenue in downtown Tucson. We decided to metamorphosize the original mural design, breathing new life into the fading work, which became a metaphor for our community healing process.

Our mural title was easy to agree on: “Together We Thrive” named after the nationally televised memorial featuring President Obama on January 12, 2011 which was held in the McKale Center on the University of Arizona campus. Depicting the surrounding areas’ history in the mural was described by participants as a way of connecting the tragedy to our everyday lives. The people wounded and killed most likely came to Fourth Avenue to shop, eat or stroll. The next several months were spent grant writing, getting permission to restore the mural and preparing for a series of fall mural design workshops.

In the fall of 2011 design workshops finally started in collaboration with arts-service learning students from Hownstine High School, and their teacher Ms. Alabi-Isama. The workshops were open to the general public, so most were intergenerational. Every Tuesday students and community members met to dialogue, research, draw or go on field trips. All this information was than translated into the Together We Thrive mural design.

On November 9, 2011 we hosted Americorp Service Learning students from City High, Tucson High, Howenstine and Vail for a day of service.

Working on our mural design.

Each lesson included some aspect of our themes: the history of Fourth Avenue; the January 8th shootings; being of service to our community. What did we want to depict in our mural?  How would this help in the healing process?  How could we depict the cheer and unique culture of Tucson? 

In one of the lessons, youth were each paired with an adult who listened while taking notes. The youth talked about the lack of places for free expression, being inundated by advertising, violence and apathy.  Some of the conversations revolved around what it means to bully, or to have power over – control.  “The goal of the bully is to get under your skin” offered one student, “then they get a reaction.”  Another student offered “the reason President Obama came to town was to say he was not afraid.” This is a keen insight, that when someone is bullied it’s important to go to an authority figure, a leader, to put a stop to things. Another topic has been how our group can be stewards of our community, and role models for others.

In addition to the classroom conversations we also sought input from the neighborhoods surrounding the mural. Classroom and neighborhood conversations shared common themes of bullying, violence, our collective future, stewardship and people working together to build a compassionate, regenerative, prosperous and creative future. A common image mentioned, and one that is depicted in the final mural design, is of people working together, brick by brick, to build community.

Preparing mortar for wall repairs.

The most popular lessons have been at the mural site. The youth caulk cracks in the wall, scraping off loose paint and dirt, mix mortar and try their hands at re-pointing brick walls. While the tasks are simple, the process of transforming something has appealed to the students’ notion of restorative community and experiential learning. At the mural site neighbors often come by to lend a hand.

Rose Taulton is the Neighborhood Outreach Coordinator for this project. She grew up on Fourth Avenue and describes in detail the people and places that make up life in this area. Rose has helped paint a picture of life in Tucson from the days of milkmen to La Llorona (“The Weeping Woman”). Many people felt that the shooting was the result of our community not responding to the warning signs exhibited by the shooter. Rose is the antithesis of the events of January 8th, 2011, exhibiting compassion, welcoming youth and neighbors, many of whom she has known for years.

Rose and students interviewing neighborhood merchants.

As the semester wound down we put the finishing touches on our mural design. On January 7, 2012 we will unveil our design to the public and ask for comments and feedback. The BEYOND festival, January 7th, 1 – 4pm marks the kickoff of our community design-review process.  As part of the city wide festival TAB will be hosting a Walk Up Art Station in Winsett Park, 316 N 4th Avenue, where participants will have the opportunity to vote on elements of the mural design, write reflections, add to a community poem or help repair the wall.

In late January, 2012 we will review the comments, make changes to our design, and prepare a final community mural design meeting. Once the design is approved we begin painting our mural. This is everyone’s favorite part, when we break out the paints. Painting is enchanting, versatile and really fun to teach. I usually start by having a “free paint” day using tempera and a variety of sizes of paper. This gives them a chance to experiment and get used to the material. The next session I introduce acrylics, and lessons on value and form. Providing students familiarity and some control with the paints will soon be put into practice as painting on our mural begins.

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