Symbols of The Neighborhood - Kaunas, Lithuania
In the summer of 2015 as I was painting through Europe, I wound up in Kaunas, Lithuania (where I coincidentally have ancestral ties to.) I produced a mural on a post army site, informally named Kopūstų Lauko (Cabbage Field) which has been the central focus of community artists, Vita Geluniene and Ed Carroll since 2010. Through Vita and Ed, in the summer of 2016, I returned to lead a mural workshop on the same site with a group of 7-13 year old children from the neighborhood day care center. The project was a part of the annual NYKOKA Street Art Festival.
As far as my role in this workshop goes I liked to think of myself as a guide of a ship without a destination, and our compass is constantly spinning. I'm interested in providing a platform for discovery more so than I am in executing a planned out painting. I was able to teach them some skills and theories along the way, but for me that's ancillary to the point of letting them explore their own abilities and creativities. I believe it's vital in this type of work to let go of your own expectations, and to let the environment and the people involved dictate the work and you have to adapt to that process. The kids could feel I was figuring it out as I went just as they were, and I think that this helps to level the playing field and allowed us to build something together in an interesting way as the roles of teacher and student are a bit blurred.
Description and reflection of the process of the project:
It was an interesting project, an experiment. In my own practice I walk a thin line between process driven work and an intentional and controlled aesthetic style. The latter is something that takes a long time to develop and it's a choice to develop it, a choice that kids aren't going to make at this age. So when teaching, I focus on the process. First we spent some time in the classroom loosening up, getting to know each other and our material. Exploring gesture and mark making, we covered a big table with thick paper and explored different possibilities of paints and tools, getting to know the materials in their own way, understanding how it moves and how they can move it. We then took all these large sheets of marks and cut them down to small shapes which we then collaged together to give ourselves a sketch for the mural. When a day without rain finally came we headed to the wall. Some of the kids live right next door to this site which means something already, its their backyard, it's their neighbors backyard, it's a part of their everyday life and their communities everyday life. But they don't fear at all the weight of this, or at least they didn't show me that fear if it existed, they went right at it. We began by getting our initial shapes laid down, creating blocks of solid color as base layers for mark making and patterning loosely based on our collage. Painting a crisp edge is not an easy task, it takes patience, I didn't realize it yet but this became my main focus for the entire workshop, patience, a sort of mindfulness through painting. I think they really got this, and I think they felt the reward of putting time and care into something. So, after the base layer we moved on to the gestural aspect. Here they used pallets to work with multiple colors simultaneously with many different brush and tool options for making marks. Some brilliant things came out of their explorations here. This sort of creative freedom is always revelatory, and it's exciting. I will always remember the first time I painted something larger than me and was able to use my whole body as a part of the gesture. We went for a while like this, it was hard to get them to stop. After this we started to reflect on the work, where it was, how it could go, where they wanted it to go, and began to take action. This is a tough part of the work, getting them to refine these gestures takes a lot of patience on both our parts. Lots of back and forth. The visual process is in harmony with the interactive process now, gesture - constraint, action - reflection, speaking - listening, seeing - reacting, back and forth, back and forth. I learned a few words from the kids, but the one I used the most was "leciau" which means "slow". Slowing down again we went back into what was painted to give definition to the shapes and marks all in the goal to rebuild the contrast that we lost in the mixing of the colors. This was another main concept, contrast. This meant looking at individual sections and their neighboring sections and how they interact, how they talk to each other, what they give to one another and what they take. This can be an easy thing to see, but as the kids learned, that doesn't mean it's an easy thing to execute with a limited color palette. We went over this many times throughout the process, and reworked and rebuilt things to bring out this contrast, which gave depth and definition to the painting. It was really flat for a while but they brought it to life again. They were a little bummed when we called it done, many of them wanted to continue. But it's good to have a deadline, it reenforces the need to be aware of what you're doing at each moment and how that fits into the whole of what you're doing. I can only hope that the enthusiasm and energy I saw at the end carries over to what they do next.