Murals and The Conversation

If there’s anything that the events of the last week have taught us, it’s that we need more conversation.

I’m a writer, so, by definition, I wholeheartedly embrace the power of the spoken and written word. Verbal expressions awaken passion, shift perspectives, and open minds.

Lately, however, words have been overwhelming me. I feel inundated by rhetoric, knocked off my feet by the ranting lob from one camp that prompts a return volley from the supposed “other.” During these last few weeks, the sharp syllables of conflict have pierced into the pliable gray matter of my brain. They have stabbed my heart into a sieve-like mass, leading me to wonder if there’s enough integrity left there to hold space for compassion. I am deeply saddened by the way my cherished alphabetic tools have been used to denigrate entire swaths of our social fabric and manipulate others into xenophobia and small-mindedness. Like many people, I have had to put a number of media sources in the penalty box for an unknown period of time.

And yet, we have to keep talking.

Fortunately, other potent channels of communication exist. We can turn to these in times of speechlessness, or necessary silence.

Last week, I had the opportunity to wander the streets of San Francisco with my eyes open and my camera’s SD card empty. In doing so, I was repeatedly reminded that murals – one of my favorite art forms – are one of the most provocative communication tools we have.

Ideas percolate into the hands of an artist, who translates her subconscious and conscious musings into images, colors, shadows and shapes. Through the process of refining a design and preparing it for large-format presentation, the artist allows her emotions – the proud ones, the pretty ones, and even the dark ones, to work their way into the piece. Whether the intention behind their expression is overt or covert, the contents of this messy matrix are infused into every brush stroke or nozzle spray of pigment.

When we look at a mural, we’re reading this complexly layered text. Even if we don’t consider ourselves fluent in its language, we generally get a big hit of its meaning. Then there’s a conversation. Fragments of the artist’s encoded thoughts and feelings take root in our hearts and brains where they interact with our own thoughts and feelings.

Sometimes this feels fantastic, such as when we admire a brightly colored jungle scene that lights up a dark alley. Other times it feels a little dirty, like when a tableau reminds us of chapters in our culture’s history that we’d just as soon forget. But it always feels, and we are left to sort through and make sense of that soup inside of us.

That sorting happens in silence. Right now, with all the noise out in the world, there’s a lot to be said for these quiet interior conversations that we all need to have.

I stood with my mother in front of a mural near Dolores Park, a lovely green space between the Dolores and Mission neighborhoods of San Francisco. The piece was entitled “Sunday Afternoon in Dolores Park,” and even those who snoozed through Art History 101 would recognize it as a near direct copy of George Seurat’s classic painting in the pointillist style. Only, in this copy, two men make up the featured couple. The crowd gathered is a multi-cultural one, and it includes a homeless man and a couple of women who might be sitting in the lotus position. There are pugs too, of course.

This artist, Daniel Doherty, didn’t have to shout his opinions, and I didn’t have to hear a barrage of words carefully chosen for maximum impact. All I had to do was look and absorb, and the conversation happened within me, in silence, on the corner of 19th and Guerrero. That conversation made me smile in appreciation of the diversity that this particular neighborhood celebrates.  Without conscious thought, it called up the vision of harmony that could extend far further if we just let down our walls and allowed it in.

I share these photos knowing that not everyone can visit these murals.

May they spark conversations in you, and may these conversations blossom outward in ways that build bonds.

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