Making a Mural

Transformational community art comes to Grand Turk.

By Leah Samuelson, Artists on Call
Photos By Artists on Call

Astrolabe-Image-18From mid-January to mid-March, 2009, I spent eight weeks leading community mural projects in the Turks & Caicos Islands with an organization called Artists on Call. During this time, we completed three murals, two on Grand Turk and a third, smaller mural on Providenciales. This project was the longest duration and the most murals ever completed during a single Artist on Call program.

In a community art project, community members are designers, creators and viewers. It is a vehicle for shared experience in self expression and creative problem solving. A facilitating artist can make a community-enriching mural, with local volunteers, anywhere in the world. The key is following a plan of preparation with equal amounts of artistic skill and administrative flexibility. This article is an excerpt from a larger work detailing the theory behind transformational community arts and uses one of the murals completed on Grand Turk as an example.

Making murals: artist on call

Artists on Call is a program of the not-for-profit organization BuildaBridge. As a program, Artists on Call uses artist volunteers to lead community art projects in what I call “tough places” — a term that refers to communities struggling with poverty or disaster. I have personally facilitated community murals in tough places in six countries. These mural sites include a maximum security gang prison in Guatemala City, a neighborhood slum in downtown Guatemala City, and a neighborhood slum in Nairobi, Kenya. Each mural was unique, but the processes were similar. The Turks & Caicos was a different kind of setting than the other places in which I have worked, but still in the midst of cleaning up and rebuilding from two hurricanes that hit the Islands during September 2008, they met the criteria of a tough place.

People in tough places often experience trauma in catastrophic and violent events, or trauma pervades their quality of life. The word trauma is from a Greek word meaning “wound” and it refers to the pain and suffering from emotional, psychological and physical injuries. The pain and loss of a traumatic event can cause physical or mental isolation. Children in these situations often do not have the vocabulary to evaluate their experience.

Overcoming trauma is key to transforming individuals and their communities. People need a task on which to focus and a physically and relationally safe environment in order to consent to vulnerability. In these moments, relationships are built as honest thoughts and creative offerings are shared. For this reason, the mural work I complete focuses on the establishment of visual and physical projects that draw participation from the community, and draw expressions of vulnerability or expressions of healing from participants. When people are truly focused on a creative task, they are undefended. Expressions of ideas that build interconnectedness are possible when defenses erected to suppress traumatic triggers are temporarily laid aside. Painting images of familiar things is comforting. The process of painting a mural is transforming.

The theory of community art: untying a knot

Typically, community arts projects are undertaken as catalysts for transformation. These projects provide the place and the personnel capable of entering into transforming relationships with community participants. Tough places throughout the world struggle with domestic violence, illiteracy, environmental decay, political and economic oppression, religious wars, limited access to nutrition, unemployment, homelessness, lack of choice, and indifference to hope. Community arts projects claim to grow opportunities through changing minds by changing behavior — namely, introduced artistic behavior.

Consider likening a community art project to a building project, with workers, building materials, a blueprint, and an imagined result. The comparison begs identification with either the familiar additive or subtractive processes. Additive processes compile materials and fill real space with something new — like a new building, or a clay sculpture pieced together one lump at a time. Subtractive processes carve into an existing mass to creatively transform it — like a stone sculpture or a landscaped property. The lengthy process of community mural-making is less like compiling or carving and more like rearranging community components — human resources, skills, expectations, paint pigments and local images. Communities with high levels of risk factors or those regaining consciousness after a disaster have these community components in a tangle.

AS-Leah-Image-7Engaging a community and the artistic process in attempting to make an image is a tangled process.  Undertaking a mural is untying a complicated knot in a long cord; it takes focus and direction from a few specialized directors. It involves tugging and looping in opposite directions in a sort of inelegant dance, pushing and inviting community institutions toward an end goal.

If the cord represents community artistic potential, the point of untangling it is not to spread a community out, but to fit it for the use for which it was formed. An unintentionally knotted cord is often kicked into a corner where its tangles curiously worsen. A knot is not entirely a problem. The process of looping and un-looping its segments can yield a blessing to a community. A sorted or strategically knotted cord collaborates, builds and interfaces with anyone ready to create. The title of this metaphor might better be untying and retying a knot. Ordered, cooperating parts formed into a pattern can be beautiful and useful.

The metaphor points to the intrinsic value and abilities of a community, and a visiting collaborator filling the role of a servant-detangler in the community arts context. Visitors can often see and do things locals would not, and they are in a position to offer encouragement from an outside perspective. They do not come to clear away debris or compile assets, but to affirm and attend to the existing components that can be arranged to reveal a beautiful work of art.

Creating a safe place

Mentoring enters any relational equation in which a teacher spends quality time with her students. Borrowing from the science of therapy, safe places are set up in each of the mural locations. The opportunity to do something creative tells people something safe is going on. Vulnerability and artistic experiments may feel risky, but the human subconscious knows there is the potential for healing in expression and collaboration.

In each setting in which I worked, I grappled with the question, what specific conditions make a place safe and welcoming? From the standpoint of an artist, how could a project be structured to make people feel safe enough to participate? People sharing creative ideas and telling stories to one another as they paint together works its own portion of transformation, but how can a project cater to their skill level and allow for a sense of accomplishment?

Making murals: Grand Turk

In the Turks & Caicos Islands, Artist on Call was invited to facilitate a community mural project at the request of the Turks & Caicos National Museum. The island of Grand Turk in particular was recovering from Hurricane Ike. Island infrastructure was severely hobbled and buildings and plant life were ravaged. I accepted the invitation and entered the project before the actual locations for the murals were decided.

The first location became Ona Glinton Primary School. Our mural was to be on the exterior of the school auditorium. Very soon after arriving on Grand Turk, the loss of local vegetation, especially trees, was apparent. Working with local stakeholders, including the museum, we quickly designed a mural depicting local trees, with close-ups of leaf and fruit details.

Astrolabe-Image-20School administrators were excited about the project, and assigned the fifth grade classes the task of completing the mural. Every student returned with a parental permission slip to stay after school every day for two weeks to work on painting the mural. Students were assigned in groups to choose specific trees. For homework, students were to bring in leaves from trees we would paint in the mural. The next day leaves showed up. “This is from a tree in my yard. I couldn’t reach it so my daddy lifted me up. I think we should use it.” The students were enthusiastic.

As each group began work, they quickly assumed ownership of their sections. They were able to return to their sections day after day and focus on filling in shapes. They had visible goals. This chance to focus was one element that contributed to a state of vulnerability formerly mentioned. Consistent time spent with one another and with me as the teacher opened doors for beginning relationships and friendships. In her book on interpreting children’s art, Dr. Levick (2003) wrote, “The artist creates order out of disorder. This disorder may be something the artist feels inside or something chaotic perceived in the environment” (p. 1).  A time and place to focus, a task on which to focus, and the opportunity to systematically build something together after the hurricane established an oasis of order for painters.

At the beginning of the work, students were taught basic design principles. They were taught basic color theory and paint mixing techniques. The individual tree outlines were sketched onto the wall. Then the students began filling in the base coat of the mural’s images. From the beginning of the project, sponsors and the museum stressed to students the hosting potential of the finished mural. It was their mural, but it would be for the whole island to enjoy, both a wake-up call to care for island culture and an invitation to enjoy the artwork.

Excitement was palpable when the project was complete. A young skeptic at the outset of the project changed his mind in the end and on the last day stated, “We should illuminate it at night!” Pride in the product and students’ work was evident when the mural was finished. Local news outlets covered the story and the director of education came for a mural dedication ceremony. She charged students with future care of the mural and corresponding future care of the island. “Showing respect for the child’s work is a way to help children to begin to respect the property rights of others” (Levick, p. 20). Standing in front of the mural, students were proud of their school and satisfied they had helped beautify the island. Both the mural and the island to which the mural was gifted, belonged to them.

A sense of safety was achieved partly through cultivating a sense of ownership of the project. The greater the role participants played in the mural-making process, the greater their sense of ownership. Participants and mural sponsors also desired a successful looking product. This demand always places strain on the artist. The goal of Artists on Call is to incorporate the work of novice volunteers, but every project needs to produce a professional looking image.

What is the role of professional art standards? How can disparate artist, student, and sponsor-designed goals be balanced to satisfy all participants? After experimenting with putting finishing touches over the base coats students applied to the mural, I arrived at an acceptable strategy. Once base coats and shadows were filled in after school, professional artists stayed late into the evening completing highlights and color gradations, sometimes even working by truck headlights.

Opportunities for mentoring were an integral part of the mural projects on Grand Turk. The two month timeframe allowed for conversations between students and me outside the project, in places like a church, a grocery store, or an after-school homework program. Enough time was spent in each other’s presence to begin to build mutual respect and familiarity. The museum even sponsored two watercolor clinics for the classes working on the mural.

Students and other muAstrolabe-Image-17ral participants began attending mural workdays because they wanted to see one another, and not just the mural. A portion of transformation can happen within mentoring, on both sides of the relationship. Mentoring time includes actual time spent, some skill learning, teamwork, and encouragement. Change happens as people realize new things about the world or themselves, and are affirmed in positive and familiar things.

Saying goodbye to a time of mentoring is well done within a mural signing ceremony. Here teachers and students apply their names side by side as a closing testament to their time and work together. This was the last step of the Ona Glinton mural. On this day, we stepped back and saw how each student’s contribution combined to became the whole picture. This is the first rule of making a mural: when you don’t see how what you are doing fits in, just take a step back and look at the bigger picture.


I wish to thank the Turks & Caicos National Museum, director Dr. Neal V. Hitch, and the Pine Cay Project for their support in the mural projects on which most of my research is based.


Levick, M. (2003). See what I’m saying: What children tell us through their art. Hong Kong: Regal.

Webb, N. (2006). Expressive and creative arts methods for trauma survivors. (L. Carey, Ed.). London: Jessica Kingsley.

1 Comment

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Michael Briggs
Sep 14, 2009 17:54

I worked on GT in 1958/9 with C&W & lived at the Mess. .
I remeber the Ripsaw band playing an WiIlliam Wilberforce Day – Interesting because I had been at his School – Pocklington.
I also remeber the worry when a ship loaded with amunition bound for Batista in Cuba was anchored off GT when Fidel Castro took over Cuba.

Interesting article a bit spoilt by broken link on Astrolabe image 17


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