Baltimore is a mural city. Walter Ward and Oliver Gardner, both 13, did research into Baltimore’s murals, went around the city to take pictures, and interviewed one of the prominent local mural artists, Lyle Kissack. All the murals depicted in this blog are by Lyle Kissack. This is a guest blog by Walter and Oliver.
How do you choose the places for your murals? Lyle Kissack: “Actually I don’t choose the places. The city or, specifically, BOPA – Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts –have their mural agent, so to speak, who scours the city and receives requests. There are people who say ‘I have a house. There is a wall. It is prominent. It is ready for a mural. You should come and see it.’”
How do you get money for your murals?
“Baltimore City has been really proactive and progressive in its thoughts about public arts. The city allocates money per year for murals. There is the mural component of the city’s budget. Baltimore is considered, at least from the point of view of a muralist, a mural city, like Philly, Chicago, and San Francisco are. There are certain cities that have always valued the idea of public art as being integral part of the city’s engagement with the public. Baltimore has maybe, say, fifty, sixty, seventy, really radiant walls. More often than not the murals are nestled, off the beaten paths. You have to go into the neighborhoods and find them.”
Do you have volunteers helping you?
“I think there are a plenty of people who would want to do that. The difficulty is that there are insurance aspects because of climbing up and down the scaffolding. I have done a series of walls, teaching murals, for MICA – Maryland Institute College of Art –, where they have a sort of blanket coverage for the students. But in general the insurance coverage is limited to the original artist himself or herself.”
How long does an average mural take to paint?
“I have sped up the time it takes to make a mural. Initially it always took me three to five, even six, weeks. But in the interest of efficiency and also because I have experience, I can knock out a wall in about a week now.”
Why are most murals in poorer parts of the city?
“I have a feeling that there are various perceptions of murals. The idea behind a mural is that there is an evocation of a sense of care, communal care. The mural is just a piece of a puzzle in terms of the aspects of civic engagement that go into addressing whatever needs the community presents. A mural can be as much part of a community as a rec center, a health center, an afterschool program, or any of the different agencies that are engaged in making sure that the needs of the community are met. It might be that the more affluent neighborhoods shy away from the idea of the public art because they do not want to be construed as being part of being perceived as having beleaguered needs. This is ironic because at the core the notion of the civic engagement is the universal component that has nothing to do with class.”
Do you have preferred colors or styles of painting?
“I use all the colors. Optimally murals that face north are the best. They do not get blasted by the sun. Pigment of the paint gets eaten away in direct sunlight. North-facing wall lives longer. The colors that are used are determined by the image itself. I tend to like the most vivid blue one can use. I like to throw blue out there as often as I can.”
How do you choose the themes of your pictures?
“The design of the mural is, on one hand, a personal thing; on the other hand, it is internally negotiated by how one perceives the neighborhood. What you want to do, optimally, is to zero in on what you might think is an interesting image for that space. There is an idea that a muralist is going to do what he wants to do. There is a truth to this too. But there is a responsibility of making sure that you are careful and considerate of what might be an interesting image for that particular space. It is a little bit of a personal thing and also a general response to neighborhood signals that one might get.”
Do you ever get feedback for your murals?
“When I am on the wall there is always going to be those who I call the regulars whose daily paths take them past the wall. I make friends over the course of making the murals. I come to know individual people. I respect their feedback. Depending on the person there can be a really good dialogue that takes place. In general people appreciate murals. I have really never gotten criticism.”
Which of your murals is your personal favorite?
“I think my favorite wall is the Steel Workers’ Wall. The subject matter was so rich and interesting. I did it with my friend Gerald Ross who now runs the Galleries of MICA. It was a big wall. I think it was eighty feet by thirty feet long. We proposed, because of the neighborhood, to focus on the struggle of the African-American community to ascend to supervisory positions at Bethlehem Steel. There was an internal block against the ascent of the Black workers. There were people who had spent all their life working at Bethlehem Steel, who knew the job inside and out, but the people who were less experienced in the jobs got the more supervisory positions. There were great activist types of workers who were fighting against these barriers. The ultimate irony is that right around the time these workers succeeded, Bethlehem Steel basically shut down.
It used to be that everybody knew someone who worked at the factory. There was sort of a public component to the vitality of the city that Bethlehem Steel provided. We painted the historical time-line of the struggle. We met with a man named Francis Brown who was one of the principal organizers at Beth Steel. He had transformed east end of North Avenue into what was virtually a block of community garden. He took us under his wing. He actually took us to a tour in Bethlehem Steel and we got to take some great photographs in order to capture the historical accuracy of the factory. It was a rewarding project. There was a story there, a historical evocation of a fact that was little known at the time.”
What type of an impact do you think the murals have on people’s well-being?
“That is a hard thing to gauge, to measure. I have always viewed murals as a piece of a puzzle. My ambition is that the art goes well beyond a beautification project and serves almost as a flag around which a neighborhood can rally. Optimally it would coincide and operate along civic outreach programs, public health engagements or educational programs, anything that the neighborhood needs to augment its sense of vitality. There is a real validity to the idea of appreciating, aesthetically, a piece of art. But the images also have site-specific, neighborhood specific appeal. As such it is hard to say how a mural affects someone’s well-being and sense of engagement. But I have received letters from people who, as adults, realized that a wall had influenced them as kids. They wanted to write that they loved the wall and appreciated it. There is an importance of the word “care,” people putting bunch of effort into a project, knowing that it is the ideal that they want to project. That care has an operative influence on the neighborhood – it shows that people really care about their neighborhood and one another. The mural can catalyze that sense of care in ways that are unique.”