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From September 14–October 4, The Houston Bowery Wall in New York was lined with creators crafting a new message on its iconic canvas. Its design was dreamt up and executed by the nonprofit Groundswell—an organization that brings together youth, artists, and the New York community to enact social change through the power of art.
For the new mural, teaching artist Raúl Ayala and a team of 10 Groundswell student artists created a thought-provoking piece that represents perspective on our past and hopes for a better future.
“We were honored to be a part of this collaboration with Groundswell, led by artist Raúl Ayala and assisted by 10 aspiring young artists at the iconic Houston Bowery Wall,” said Jessica Goldman Srebnick, co-founder of Goldman Global Arts and CEO of Goldman Properties, which owns the mural wall. “This collaboration was brought together to make an impact. It was our opportunity to give youth the chance to create a powerful mural that speaks to multiple perspectives of our country’s history and amplify the messages of hope and action while uniting the community. Art truly has the power to create change.”
This year, Groundswell is also celebrating its 25th anniversary by reflecting on its approximate 600 New York murals and launching its 25th Anniversary Art for Liberation Fund.
Whitewall spoke with Robyne Walker Murphy, the executive director of Groundswell, about the organization’s new mural, what’s keeping her inspired, and how the next generation of artivists are “meaning-making artists.”
WHITEWALL: What is the message behind the new mural for the Bowery wall?
ROBYNE WALKER MURPHY: Raúl Ayala, the artist and creator, said it best:
“We are currently experiencing a profound shift in all aspects of our existence. From the internal and external aspects of our psyche, to our embodied, political and spiritual health. These times present us with an opportunity to reflect on how we exist in relationship to each other, how we hold and take care of our individual, social, and cultural essence. This great shift has brutally evidenced the dynamics that have brought us to this point in time and made visible the vocabulary and symbols produced by normalized injustice.
Protests in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic remind us of this and allow us to place this shift in the context of History. When monuments are brought down, a sort of portal to a different reality is being created. I see this seemingly aggressive act also an opportunity to manifest different futures: when a symbol that stands for the values of a civilization is put into question, domination and power imbalances are being contested, too. This portal allows us to walk through the pain and find futures where we consider the way in which we are not only connected, but dependent on each other, and exist with natural beings and the lands that feed us.
For me, building imagination and sharing knowledge alongside a younger generation of artists is a great manifestation of the fruits of this shift. With this mural we are also bringing intergenerational participation into a future that honors our past while actively creating a different path of existence.”
WW: How does Groundswell's mission aid in bringing student artists together for social change?
RWM: At Groundswell we bring together youth, artists, and communities to use art as a tool for social and personal change. We believe the unique creative process of making socially-engaged visual art—from research, to design and fabrication—mirrors the visioning, creating and collaboration necessary for social change.
WW: What type of energy do you think the upcoming generation of artists—such as those in Groundswell—brings to the art world?
RWM: They are meaning-making artists. They are not concerned with accepting definitions that have been given to them. They question. They reinterpret. They are actively seeking joy because they know and believe they deserve it, especially in a world that is consistently trying to annihilate Black and brown bodies. Being in their presence, you know that they profoundly and intimately understand that their very existence is both a triumph and a protest.
WW: This mural is being created by Raúl Ayala and 10 Groundswell students. How/why these 10 students?
RWM: The 10 youth artists (we call them artivists)—Gabriela Balderas, Charlize Beltre, Brandon Bendter, Junior Steven, Clavijo, Jennifer Contreras, Maria Belen Flores, Hafsa Habib, Cipta Hussain, Karina Linares, and Gabriel Pala—were selected by Raúl with advisement from Groundswell program managers.
They are all talented artists and creators in their own right. Many of the young people
have worked with Raúl before either during our Summer Leadership Institute (which Raúl co-led this year) or in previous years when he led our alumni mural program, Artivist All-Stars. Because Raúl had 21 days to complete the entire mural from start to finish, relationships were important, as well as a demonstrated interest in deepening their artistic skill, working collaboratively and committing to the work.
WW: Can you walk us through how a mural of this scale was created collaboratively?
RWM: It's well understood that the global response to the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor ignited something new in human beings around the world. Millions took to the streets to protest police violence and demand changes to our current structure of over-policing communities of color.
It was during this time that Janet Goldman, the Chairman of Goldman Properties and long-time friend and supporter of Groundswell, and Jessica Goldman, the CEO of Goldman Properties, reached out to me because they wanted to be a part of this critical moment. They wanted to give Groundswell, a grassroots, social justice, youth-centered organization, the opportunity to produce the Bowery Wall, one of the most famous sites for public art in the world. After sharing the portfolios of several Groundswell artists, Jessica and Janet selected Raúl as the lead artist and designer.
The other important component for both us and Goldman Properties was to have our youth artivists work alongside Raúl throughout the entire process of painting the wall. That journey began in June with many conversations around scheduling, visioning, you name it. Raúl submitted his design in August.
Our Mural Operation Team, led by Amelia Calsi, was hugely impactful in this effort. Amelia handled all the logistics with support from Daniel Pezet, the Director of Operations at Goldman Global Arts. Amelia was key to ensuring all the materials (from paints to a scissor lift) were at the site and production-ready.
The youth were scheduled to work with Raúl over 21 days in two teams of five; all 10 young people weren’t on site at the same time to ensure that we adhered to social distancing guidelines correctly. Before the painting began, the wall was prepped, then the grid was created to dictate the design across the wall's 1,300 square feet. The design is then transferred to the wall and the artivists, instructed by Raúl, bring the piece to life. After three weeks, it was completed, and we were able to hold our dedication on October 3.
WW: Have there been any artists, organizations, or platforms that have kept you inspired over the past few months amid isolation?
RWM: The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) has been a constant source of inspiration for me. They are brilliant strategists who understand how to organize protests paired with art and center it around clear policy platforms and a decentralized leadership in order to ignite tangible change. They deserve tons of credit in the way they've shifted the public dialogue around racial justice.
I also loved and recently became a member of the Brooklyn Movement Center for the same reason. In terms of arts and youth development organizations, I am consistently inspired by Brotherhood Sister Sol, Vibe Theater, The DreamYard Project, The Laundromat Project, Sadie Nash Leadership Project, Girls for Gender Equity, and, of course, Groundswell, but I guess that goes without saying!
I am incredibly inspired by Public Assistants founded by frequent Groundswell artist DonChristian Jones! Many of the artists in that collective work with Groundswell and they’ve been creating work for the uprising, providing community care, giving out free bikes and much more. Everyone should check them out.
Finally, I have been digging Lovecraft Country. It inspires me every week—the Black experience as both horror and fantasy has blown me away!
And of course, our young people and young people across the globe are a constant source of inspiration. Through their eyes, I see what they believe we can be.
WW: What is Groundswell working on next?
RWM: We will be spending the year reflecting on some 600 Groundswell murals in NYC through public programs, campaigns, and video shorts. We are launching our 25th Anniversary Art for Liberation Fund to solidify our legacy for the next 25 years! If folks wish to donate, please visit here.