Friday, June 29, 2012

A Chat with Muralist Shira Walinksy

On Thursday, July 5, Hui No‘eau will welcome the first of 2 mural artists to Maui as part of its 2012 Artist-in-Residence program: Shira Walinsky of Philadelphia, PA.

With an MFA in painting from the University of Pennsylvania, Shira Walinsky is a painter, printmaker and muralist who has been a featured artist with the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program since 2000. Her interdisciplinary work explores cultures and subcultures of distinct urban areas that use personal narratives to reflect larger issues, transform public spaces, and develop a visual language using typography, portraits and textiles. She serves as co-teacher with Jane Golden, Director and pioneer of the Mural Arts Program, at the University of Pennsylvania, University of the Arts, Princeton University, Bryn Mawr College and Drexel University.

To learn more about this exciting program, you can check out our website or scroll down to read previous blog posts. To learn more about on!

Talk about painting in large-scale- what about this appeals to you as an artist?
I have always loved big painting. I like the scale of a piece in relation to human scale. Large painting and sculpture can take you in the way a movie can- you are surrounded by it.

What is it that appeals to you about the collaborative art-making process?
I like  being  in the mix of the real world people, their present and histories. I like that collaborative work can push you to expand your understanding of your work and the world you live in.  

Do you ever struggle with the compromise between the direction/s of a group work vs. that prompted by your own artistic vision?
Yes this is a struggle in most work with communities. How do you balance what you have heard from people and that which you aesthetically love and can stand by? There is always a very interesting push and pull. Ultimately, the work does live and with communities and you need to do the utmost to respect this while not comprising too much so work becomes watered down.

What is community? Why is it important?
A group of people connected by a commonality. We are essentially social beings and need other people. Community can create change, problem solve, support.

What have been the biggest changes to the process of developing a mural on Maui (guerrilla territory) vs. one on your home turf (Philly)?
I think it's always tricky to go into a situation as an outsider to create something reflective of that place which is authentic. This happens going from neighborhood to neighborhood in Philadelphia, where you can also be perceived as an outsider. In Philadelphia, I am currently working on a project with refugee communities from Burma and Bhutan. Though we inhabit the same city I go in as outsider and have to research, talk to people gain trust and navigate through some language barriers. Each mural in Philadelphia has had a slightly different process but they all involve listening, talking to people showing a design and getting responses to the design. So far there have been many great conversations about Maui, but I think a big change is coming in without a baseline of familiarity with place. Murals in Philadelphia are created in conjunction with an artist, a site and a community. What is a big change with this project is the complete unfamiliarity with the site. I have never been to Hawaii but am extremely excited to gain a sense of the place by seeing it in person. I think had I not had conversations I might have been way too overwhelmed by the physical beauty of Maui to do anything but drop my jaw and right straight to the ocean! (I'm an ocean lover in a landlocked east coast city).

How would you explain MAP to Maui? What are the fundamentals of your work there?
MAP is an organization run and founded by the  incredibly great and driven Jane Golden to paint walls in Philly. The program was originally directed at kids who had been sentenced for doing grafiitti to channel their talents by developing their art skills to create community-driven murals. Currently mural arts has a staff of about 30 people and somewhere between 50-70 artists a year paint murals.  Mural arts provides neighborhoods an opportunity to share their stories individually and collectively through the mural making process. Mural Arts provides classes for teens and also has a restorative justice program which stress community building through the mural making process. As a result there are over 3,00 mural in Philadelphia which each tell a story of people and place. The fundamentals of my work at MAP involve working with communities in conjunction with a project manager, designing and painting murals. I have also taught with Jane Golden which has really shaped my interest and love for murals!

Why do you work for MAP?
I love big painting, I love being a part of artwork which is connected to communities. I love learning and being challenged by communities. I like feeling that art is alive and connected to a place everyday. I like seeing people who might not have a connection become involved in various aspects of the mural making process whether its going to a mural meeting or being part of a paint day. I like being a facilitator to help people tell their stories.  I like the possibilities for new ways  to work with communities and art! Philadelphia is a city of characters I enjoy meeting them. Its a privilege to hear peoples' stories.You get to be part of small changes happening in the city; each time there is a mural a discussion is raised around the mural in relation to what people would like to see on the wall, plus questions about the history of the place and the vision for the future. I think these discussions are really important to help get people to frame their own histories and help define their own futures.

What creates a sense of HOME for you in Philadelphia?
Connection to my family, their history here, friends, people, connectedness. Painting murals has also made Philly home to me. With each project you become invested and learn about a new part of the city. You work there every day and this site becomes part of your routine. Not only just painting the mural but going to a coffee shop and talking to people on the street. In this way I feel connected to many neighborhoods in Philly.

What could make Philadelphia BETTER?
Better Schools! Better public education system, a cleaner city, more bike lanes, proactive forward thinkers. Inventors, thinkers. Issues around class and race still a problem. more money to the mural program. 

What is it that makes Philadelphia PHILADELPHIA?
 East coast post industrial, we say wuter not water, its people, its flavor, 100 degrees in the summer and snow in the winter. Bricks, old factories, revitalized downtown. Its a city whose character was formed by its immigrant groups coming from Eastern Europe, Italy, Ireland and German in the early 20th century. These close knit groups formed tight neighborhoods that were drawn to Philly for the work in factories, garment industry etc.. Once these industries shut down the city faced a decline in the 1970s. Philly was founded by William Penn and has an old city feel to it.

What is it that makes Maui MAUI? (I’ll ask once now and again at the end of your residency)
 From conversations so far I would say the amazing geography beauty of the landscape, being surrounded by ocean all the time, being connected to land and ocean, amazing light, color.. history.. need to understand more.. but reconciling with history with how to connect to the past.. what is the native Hawaiian voice, the mix of people and cultures.  But to be really honest I feel like I need more time, more conversations and to see for myself.

Talk a bit about the range of conversations you’ve had with Mauians- provide an overview of your research process thus far. What similarities & differences do you see in terms of defining community or sharing a communal voice (Philly vs. Maui)?
There have been some great conversations so far ranging from visual descriptions of place, proximity to the ocean which feeds, to great anecdotes about Hawaiian families playing music in their garages. There have been discussion about the native Hawaiian voice and some of the divisions between native Hawaiians and newcomers. So far, I get a real sense of connectedness between people on Maui. I think the process has been little different in terms of talking over the phone and getting the response of particular people. Frequently meetings through mural arts have a randomness to them. (I say this in a good way). A meeting is held at a school or a rec center in preparation for a mural and you don't know who will show up. It could be a mix of people- some who really are invested in the project, others who wander in and become invested through the process. Sometimes getting a community together happens in a more roundabout way. Its easy  to enter the neighborhood where you are doing a project and get a sense of the place by observing, going to a corner store , taking photos etc. I think there are so many murals in Philly that people are familiar with the visual vocabulary of murals. So far, the Maui mural has been a really special process. Speaking in a very directed way one-on-one has made me feel connected to the place, possibly more so than just flying in and observing. I've gotten so many great ideas and images, Ive gotten a sense of the layers of the place socio- economically, the flavor the culture the landscape. Actually the power of words is amazing through these conversations I feel like I've taken mini trips to Maui with each conversation.

Want to hear more? Join us at the Hui July 6 - 20 to enroll in one of Shira's workshops, volunteer as an artist-assistant, help us build the mural-base, or just talk story. Can't make it? Post your thoughts & ideas below.

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