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Community Spirit Rising

By Mary Summerbell

“I wanted to show what real cooperation looks like within a community.” So begins “Sherman Park Rising,” a short film  featured at Beloit International Film Festival this year. These opening words, spoken clearly and confidently by artist Tia Richardson, instantly set the mood, the tone, and the goal of both the mural and the movie about it that she co-produced.

“Sherman Park Rising” is a 17-by-56 foot mural on the side of a building, next to an empty lot, at the corner of 47th and Center Streets in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Painted last summer, with supervision, by anyone willing to pick up a brush and give their time and skills to it, it shows, in bright, colorful detail, scenes representing the collective stories, concerns, needs, wants and dreams of a struggling neighborhood looking for a new, more positive identity. In an  eclectic area  that has been stigmatized  by poverty and violence, residents now  find an intersection where old issues meet beautiful images of better possibilities. And they helped create it – from the mayor to the little kid saying, “Look. And I didn’t even go outside the lines.”

See the mural online at Cosmic Butterfly Design. Better yet, go see it for real. It is a powerful experience, with a strong positive impact for many, many people. It’s a true and beautiful tribute to the human spirit. And yet it almost didn’t happen. With plans in place, but  funding uncertain, and deadlines for action approaching, it came time to try something or lose the entire project. In the movie Tia tearfully tells us how, not knowing if the money would come, she made the decision to take the risk, and took the first step – holding the community workshops that became the foundation for the content of the design.

The people brought so much to those meetings. They were so open,  spontaneous, serious, sincere  in their shared reflections  and in  their individual opinions  of  what they wanted on this mural, and how they wanted themselves and the place where they live to be publicly represented. They were blunt and funny, sometimes nicely insisting that this or that be included, telling why it is important to them. Like kids, they make simple  sketches and  stick figure drawings and endearingly explain what they mean. Tia tells them, “I’m in service to you on this project. How you feel is my measure.” One woman says it feels like “somebody finally listening.”

On mural dedication day I hear Tia say that every single story, every single request, every single picture from the people at the workshops is represented somewhere in the mural. Every single one. This is much of why the mural has such a poignant effect on us. We all have a story. And behind every picture is a story. We relate to stories, find ourselves in stories. Tia says, “Murals are a way for me to tell a larger story over a space.” But it’s more than that. She takes all the individual stories and blends them in a way that we can all appreciate, because we can see where we fit in. We can identify our part in the bigger story, which becomes a community story, a universal story. So many stories blended into  a  greater story of a shared journey of life experience, expressed through art, and art as a life experience.

As a community mural artist Tia says, “I need the community in order to do the work. Community engagement is what gives the work life and vitality. Without that, it falls flat.” For Tia, “It’s about giving an experience. It’s about participation. It’s all about how people feel while they are participating.” There’s powerful magic in the process. And Tia is motivated by that magic of how people feel about their experience. Through connection and catharsis people can walk past their trauma, difficulties and differences and get going in a new direction – together. It’s an opportunity that  helps  people step into a new, cooperative space. “The evolution is the healing process, is transformation.” And a community coming together to create new life through a shared (art) experience is a beautiful transformation, indeed. That is the power of “Sherman Park Rising.”

In an unexpected way, Tia was personally affected by her own intention of showing real cooperation in community. Ironically, she gave herself an experience of redefining what cooperation means to her. Working on the mural, she felt some inner tension. As she focused on it, looking into it, she had an insight. “I discovered I was struggling between my ideal of cooperation and the actual experience of it. I thought cooperation meant that everyone has to agree. But that’s not it. Cooperating is sharing, with mutual respect and mutual accountability.”

“Sherman Park Rising” is certainly an exquisite example of community cooperation. And so much more. Healing. Hope. Trust. Creativity. Pride. Renewal. Rejuvenation. Joy. Magic. You can see it all in the faces and hear it all in the voices of the people in the movie, participating in the process of creating this neighborhood mural. This is the deepest beauty of it.

I admit that I cannot be objective about this. Tia Richardson is my friend, which added a new level of fun and meaning for me this year, seeing her movie at Beloit International Film Festival. And, by chance, I’m in it – just for a couple of seconds. Funny that I’ve been secretly wishing to somehow be in a BIFF production for years, but couldn’t see how that would happen. And now it has – in a fun, totally unexpected way. It tickles me. I have to laugh. That’s a little magic in it for me.

Someone in the movie summarizes it best. He comes near the end – a dapper fellow, with a big, boyish grin. He looks gleefully into the camera and says, “We are all a part of this, and this is love. Love is good. Love is awesome.” And he giggles. Like a little kid. This is the irresistible spirit of community that this mural evokes. The sheer beauty of it is impressive – both process and result uplifting and inspiring. I don’t know how anyone looking at it can resist the magic of it – the felt sense of living art, the sense of a collective, yet personal past, present and hoped – for future of all of us – to creatively meet each other’s needs. It represents a reaching, together, for something higher. Collective aspirations on display. A loving reminder of the goals of a better life we can all continue striving to attain.

See the mural at http://www.cosmic-butterfly.com/2017/3/  Better yet, go see it for real. It is a powerful experience, with a strong positive impact

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