Young artists put the finishing touches on a mural near the Brooklyn Navy Yard that is being officially dedicated on Thursday as one of several new murals depicting life in various New York City neighborhoods.
August 30, 2012, 10:37 AM
By CELIA MCGEE
A passing security guard stopped and did a double take. So did some young mothers with strollers. Murals have always been intended to awe, instruct and inspire, and the enormous image of an outspread hand slowly creeping up a naked brick wall at 512 Rockaway Avenue in Brownsville, Brooklyn, was no exception.
Now finished, “Yesterday I was___, Today I am___, Tomorrow I will be___,” as the mural is called, is the work of a team of young mural artists with Groundswell, an organization that pairs the making of public art with underserved New York City neighborhoods. It will be formally dedicated on Thursday.
“I’m afraid of heights,” said Francisco, 17, near the top of towering scaffolding as he worked on the 27-foot-high mural. “But I’m not afraid anymore.’’ He declined to give his last name explaining that he was involved with the criminal justice system “because I was young and stupid and was driving without a license.’’
His participation in the project, which pays its apprentice artists $7.25 an hour, came through an alternative-to-incarceration program administered by a group called the Center for Court Innovation. The artists get paid only if they show up promptly and consistently for their seven-hour workdays.
On Thursday, another mural commissioned by Groundswell, outside the Brooklyn Navy Yard, is being dedicated. The artwork, which is called “Here Goes Something,” depicts the area’s working-class history and was painted by a group of artists who did much of their research by interviewing residents at the nearby Farragut Houses. Three other Groundswell murals will be dedicated on Thursday, in Hunts Point, the Bronx, and two other Brooklyn neighborhoods, East New York and Sunset Park.
Since Groundswell was founded 16 years ago by Amy Sananman, a former tenant organizer, the group has commissioned about 400 murals, usually through some form of partnership with a city agency and civic or educational institutions seeking to promote messages about community roots, traffic safety, environmental stewardship, social justice or other pressing concerns.
The Brownsville mural being unveiled this week is notable because the idea for the subject matter came from the young artists who painted it rather than a sponsor.
The subject arose when Groundswell held a retreat last fall and the discussion touched on a project focused on dating violence and young women. The young men present, Ms. Sananman recalled, “essentially said, ‘What about us?’” And so she committed to focusing on what she believed to be the underrepresented perspective of teenage males.
“The idea is to explore male identity and the lack of role models, and to break male stereotypes,” said James Brodick, project director of the Brownsville Community Justice Center of the Center for Court Innovation.
“At the same time, we have a big issue right here at our home base,” Mr. Brodick added, pointing toward the Van Dyck and Brownsville Houses stretching down the street. “The N.Y.P.D.’s stop-and-frisk policy is much higher in this area, and with the shootings at different housing projects, you’ve got a high imprisonment ratio and kids dying all the time. A lot of the shootings are between young men from different housing developments. By bringing them together on projects like this, there’s a chance to work together and heal.”
Neighborhood residents and local representatives are also invited to get involved in the conception and design of Groundswell’s murals.
But the mural in Brownsville almost ground to a halt from the start, Ms. Sananman said. “Once we found the wall, we had a few lunches with the owner,” she said of the residential building now sprouting Groundswell’s handiwork, “and he finally said, ‘I’ll sign the contract but the only thing is, I’m Muslim, so there can’t be any faces.’’’
The resulting design was the wall-size hand, its fingers spread wide in greeting, or outreach. It features the words of its title, as well as others, like “responsibility,” “respect,” “love,” “equality,” “accountability,” “leadership,” “compassion,” “discipline” and “dignity” along the bottom. The mural depicts keys, hearts, books, paired figures, and clasping hands that are meant to represent “unlocking the characteristics we seek in role models, and love, learning, teamwork, unity and communication,” said Jules Joseph, 28, a professional artist who is mentoring the young artists on the project.
Each icon is contained in a drop of water. “Those aren’t tears; they’re raindrops,” Mr. Joseph said. “These young men are a special group. They’re all at pivotal points in their lives, where they have to unravel what it means to be an adult, and for black males in this culture that’s a pretty difficult conversation to have.’’
Another artist, Robert Howell, 24, said he had been documenting the project in photographs and video. “I’ve been painting and doing art since I was born,” he said, “so this is a new experience for me. I’ve been with Groundswell since 12th grade. They helped me put together my portfolio for college.”
Mr. Brodick looked up at him on the scaffolding. Under Mr. Howell’s watchful lens, the word “tomorrow” started to appear. “The only way to change a community,” Mr. Brodick said, “is to involve the community.”
Ms. Sananman said that’s her mission. “Groundswell is my mural,” she said. “About a third of the kids in our summer program of 120 are either court-involved — they’re on probation or have been in incarceration — or in foster care. This is where all my creative energy goes.”