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Pre-order our book YOU ARE AN ARTIST (which includes new assignments!) here: Today we're going to continue our discussion of public art, this time focusing on murals. We've invited Richard McCoy back to the studio to share with us what exactly murals are, where they came from, and how they can contribute to the betterment of the community.

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Sarah: Hey everybody.  Today we're gonna continue our discussion of public art.  And this time, we're going to focus on murals.  Here with me is my friend, Richard McCoy, who's been with us on the show before telling us why we should and shouldn't touch art.  A former museum conservator, Richard is now leading a new effort in Columbus, Indiana, dedicated to caring for and celebrating the famous modern architecture in that city.

Richard: Hey Sarah, let's talk about some murals.

Sarah: Let's do it.  So first, we have to establish what a mural actually is.

Richard:  Right.  Well, the definition for mural isn't that difficult.  It's basically a large painting on a wall or ceiling, and they can be either inside of a structure or on the outside.

Sarah:  But it has to be in some way public, right?

Richard:  Well, there are murals that are both.  Folks have had murals in private spaces forever, but I'm really interested in murals that were designed for public spaces.

Sarah:  Well, what does the history of mural-making in public spaces tell us?  Where can we trace this history from?  Do we have to go all the way back to the caves paintings of Altamira?

Richard:  Sure, murals have been around for a long, long time.  And really, just about every civilization has created some kind of mural that is now a part of their cultural heritage.  You can think about the Mayan murals of Central America, and of course, Michelangelo's painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  But, when we talk about murals today, I think the relevant history starts in the early twentieth century, with what I like to call "modern murals".

Sarah:  Do tell.

Richard:  So, at the start of twentieth century in North America, the world of murals kind of shifts and takes on a new purpose.  One event that dramatically shaped American cities, and really cities around the world, was the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, that introduced new ways for architecture and art to create public spaces that were designed to be representative of the aspirations of the government itself, or the publics they served.  With the modernization and growth of cities, more government-funded public spaces were emerging, like post offices, libraries, hospitals, and federal buildings.  And with the rise of these spaces, and places, an interest in decorating them also arises.  For example, in the 1920s, painters in Mexico were hired by the government to create murals telling the story of the Mexican Revolution, and the aims of the new government.  The three painters that became the best-known from this work are Diego Rivera, Jose Orozco, and David Siqueiros.  They were called "Los Tres Grandes", which of course means "The Three Great Ones".  And yeah, they were really great painters.  Each had a big impact in demonstrating the roles that murals can play in defining the aspirations of a government, and also how murals can work to tell complex narratives.  Diego Rivera believed that painting on the walls of public buildings was the highest form of art because it made art accessible to everyone.

Sarah:  Right.  Rivera wrote in 1932, "Mural art is the most significant art for the proletariat.  But the easel picture is an object of luxury, quite beyond the means of the proletariat."

Richard:  He used his murals to tell the story of contemporary society and scientific culture at the time.  He also used them as a way to advance his own political agenda.  And while Rivera mostly painted in Mexico, he also made a number of murals in the US.  His mural at the Detroit Institute of arts is believed to have inspired Franklin D. Roosevelt to create an art program in the US as part of his new deal program.  FDR started the Federal Arts Project in 1935 to support artists in need of employment and to, "integrate the fine with the practical arts and, more especially, the arts in general with the daily life of the community."

Sarah:  I like your FDR.

Richard:  Yeah.  You gotta admit, it's FDR, right?  The Federal Arts Project lasted for eight years, until 1943.  About five thousand artists were hired over this time and more than two hundred thousand artworks were made, of which approximately twenty-five hundred were murals, most of which were created for post offices, federal buildings, and hospitals.  But FDR's art program was really similar to the Mexican Mural Program.  In both cases, the government is using visual art to tell stories about their countries through images.  Most of the murals that survive from before World War II are inside buildings.  I want to make a transition to those that are outside of buildings.  This is a shift in communities having the opportunity to take hold of the problem of beautifying a public space that is highly visible.

Sarah:  Okay, so what about street art and graffiti?  What about when people paint on walls in the public sphere without permission?

Richard:  Right.  Well,  l like graffiti artists a lot.  I also recognize that sometimes,'s complicated.  Many great murals and and important artistic statements have been made without permission. 

Sarah: Okay, so give us an example.

Richard:  Well, like, the Chicano Art Movement, or El Movimiento, which took hold throughout the southwest in the late 1960s, frequently represented the Mexican-American people in the US, and their cultural, economic, and political struggles.  The role of a mural as a tool of community activism is a decided shift in what a mural can do.  Murals in the late 1960s and the early 1970s demonstrated how art can highlight the value of local community and place.  Instead of being paid by a government to tell the story of a nation, or some similar thing, artists were working on a community level to tell their own story.

Sarah:  Hooray!

Richard:  Right?  One of the most recognized political figures from the 1960s and 70s is Cesar Chavez, who helped unionize farm workers in California.  There have been countless beautiful murals of Chavez, but one of the most recognized murals from this time is Judy Baca's "The Great Wall of Los Angeles", which was started in 1974.  Hundreds of artists, historians, and lots of young adults, have worked on this project to tell the history of California.  Murals became powerful tools in cities around the world in late 1960s and 70s, when so many difficult social events were taking place.  From political assassinations, to race riots in cities, to war protests, there was a lot to be discussed at this time.  Many murals were made with community art workshops, where artists worked within the community, like Baca, to create murals.  This way of working exists all over the country today.

Sarah:  And they didn't have the Internet or the kinds of spaces we have today to communicate publicly and share messages.  That was indeed a turbulent time, but so is now.  And I think it's interesting to consider how we chose to express ourselves visually based on the tools and platforms at hand.  Why do think in the 60s and 70s, Richard, it was architecture that became the platform of choice?

Richard:  So in the 1960s and 70s, American cities were changing dramatically in other ways.  People were leaving the downtown core of the city for the suburbs and many of the early twentieth century buildings were vacant, becoming dilapidated, or being torn down.  This time, many mayors and citizens were exploring ways to make their downtowns more vibrant and beautiful.  A different kind of mural emerged, one that was not designed to tell a story, but rather speak to the space around it.  This new kind of mural created a conversation with architecture.  These kinds of murals were often strong in color and design, size and purposeful in location.  I've not seen a single term for this kind of mural, but I like calling them environmental graphics, and they started to emerge in the late 1960s in New York City, with two groups--City Walls Inc., and Smokehouse Associates.  Artists at this time were suggesting that murals needed to fit the scale in the context of the urban scene.  They wanted a mural that could speak the same visual language as the city, and this tendency spread all over the US into cities like Atlanta, Chicago, Buffalo, Cincinnati, and even right here in my hometown of Indianapolis.

Sarah:  What public art can be has expanded dramatically since the 60s and 70s.  Artists have, and are, interacting with the public sphere in much different and more invasive ways, like Mierle Laderman Ukeles's project, where she joined the New York City sanitation department as an artist in residence.  And public art is so much more than murals now.  It can be sculpture, of course, it can be installation, water features, performances, and works that really challenge what art can be in the public sphere.  But I still think you can think about more recent works as extensions of the history of mural painting.  Jessica Stockholder's color jam from 2012, which was in Chicago on the corner of State and Adams Streets, for me, is sort of like an exploded mural.  It's painting on architecture in a way, but it bleeds out into city infrastructure, into the street.  It's not content to stay within the boundary of a wall. 

Richard:  If I think about the future of murals in the public sphere, I think they will follow current technology, like Jenny Holzer's projection series.  So urban projection mapping projects use computer technology to map the side of a building, and then display a moving image that relates to it.  These mapping projects also can be a kind of historical effort to re-imagine old buildings and how they might have originally looked. 

Sarah:  I think there's a tendency in a lot of cities to immediately think about murals when they think about public art.  But the possibilities are so much wider today.

Richard:  Yeah, and there are so many excellent murals from the past that are worthy of being restored or preserved.  For that to happen, though, a city and its citizens need to take ownership of these murals and work to preserve them.

Sarah:  What are the murals in your community that work, or don't work, that need restoration, that you love, or that you don't like at all? Share them with us.  Thank you so much for telling us all about murals, Richard.

Richard:  Well thanks for having me; I've enjoyed talking about it.