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Bortolami Gallery’s Artist / City initiative recently invited Cecily Brown to help conceive a mural for the Buffalo Academy of Visual and Performing Arts. Presented in partnership with the University of Buffalo Arts Collaboratory, in April, the artist began working in collaboration with a group of local creatives on a piece of art that responded to the question, “What is important to the city of Buffalo in this moment, and what will be important for the generations to come?”
For the eighth edition of this public art initiative, Brown worked with Naila Ansari, Sara Zak, Jae Skeese, Julia Bottoms, Pam Glick, George Hughes, Jodi Lynn Maracle, and a group of youth from the school to plan the large-scale work. Through a series of virtual discussions and in-person workshops taking place last spring, the team mapped out the mural in a series of smaller sketches, and plans—which were then presented as an exhibition at the local gallery The Space Between through June and July.
Following the debut of the process-driven presentation, the team completed the final mural at the high school, which took the form of a vibrant, yellow scene depicting themes from the city’s surrounding nature, its history and future, and its inhabitants. To learn more about the artwork and the collaborative process behind it, Whitewall spoke to Brown.
WHITEWALL: Tell us about your experience heading this project for Bortolami’s Artist/City initiative in Buffalo.
CECILY BROWN: I didn’t really see myself as heading the project. It was a real collaboration that started with several zoom chats—which worked surprisingly well considering Zoom’s restrictions. It was clear from the beginning that between all the artists and storytellers and the students, we were going to have enough material for 10 murals. So, the tricky part was editing our ideas and honing in on what was most important.
I emphasized to the students that not every idea could be used, and that even when we started painting, we might continue to edit. This is how I always work, and I wanted them to see that it can be very freeing to be able to let go of an idea or image.
WW: The sketches and plans made leading up to the mural were turned into an exhibition. Can you tell us about this resulting presentation?
CB: The idea of doing an exhibition of all the studies and sketches happened very naturally. Once we’d decided that we’d have the working studio at The Space Between, run by Bronwyn Keenan, it was the obvious next step to open that space to the public. Stefania [Bortolami] and Anna [Peterson] selected pieces from the week we’d all spent working there, and voila.
We wanted to keep the liveliness and openness of the working studio and didn’t want the exhibit to be too formal—I like the idea that it’s kind of like peering into the brains of the artists involved. You could see how ideas developed and changed throughout the exhibition, and how we used various source materials as references and to get ideas about structure.
WW: Was it a challenge finding common ground among this intergenerational group of collaborators? What topics or ideas were most important to everyone involved?
CB: Common ground was pretty easy to find despite the generation gaps and different backgrounds of those involved. In the end I think we took our cues from the kids as they’re the ones who’ll have to live with the thing.
The recurring themes or subjects in the early days were “the vibe of our school” the diversity of the school and of Buffalo, a sense of growth and change, indigenous plants and animals and the seasons, dance and movement and joy! During the week working in the open studio at The Space Between, some of the most important stories emerged.
The hardest thing about making something public was the feeling that people were kind of going to be stuck with it in their city. I think that’s why it was important that it wasn’t just me being the egomaniac artist forcing my vision on the world, and why we knew from the start that having local artists and students was going to make all the difference. That the locals would be able to “read the crowd,” and that they know the city and would keep a reality check on the project.
WW: Were there any themes shared with your typical practice, or was this mostly new territory for you?
CB: Some of the themes used in the mural were definitely familiar to me. Landscape, nature, figures in movement, are all recurring subjects in my painting. The color palette too was very close to colors I use in my own work.
WW: How did the overall experience differ from your typical practice?
CB: Working collaboratively is the exact opposite of my usual practice alone in the studio. I was lucky in that all the artists and storytellers came with an open mind and were cool about ideas morphing and changing as the mural developed.
Personally, it was a hugely exciting project and really invigorating to work with other artists for a change. The solitary painter thing can get lonesome. This was very collegiate, very upbeat, and just very warm and fuzzy all around. And the physical painting of it was one of the highlights of my life. Painting up so high and working so big was a blast.
I also had the kind of physical help I’m not used to having—Chuck Tingley, a Buffalo artist and muralist, helped me mix colors and assisted with brushes, rollers, spray paint, and stencils. The whole lower section of the mural was painted by the students and some of the artist collaborators. At least from my point of view it felt like everyone contributed and did their bit.