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Updated: Jul 23, 2023

“What does community mean to you?” Asking questions is one of my absolute favorite things to do and this question is where we started in April of this year. By we, I mean myself, two other Iowa artists Marissa Hernandez and Siri Garcia, a couple different Iowa organizations and a large group of young artists living in Des Moines, Iowa. This question was so important because everything we were about to create hinged on the answers.

After three months of planning, the day finally arrived when Marissa, Siri and I were standing in front of a group of 18 strangers. Quickly, the group huddled around our arms, that were full of art supplies. “What are we doing, WHAT ARE WE DOING!!?” It sounded like they all asked at once. They were moving so fast, talking so fast, asking to help so fast.

Fresh out of the frying pan and into the fire we set out drawing boards, paper, markers, colored pencils, paints, brushes, water, paper towels. All the art supplies! We were set to go. We regrouped as little legs swung back and forth from the picnic benches at the Evelyn K Davis Park and asked the question. “What does community mean to you.”

These young artists could draw out their answers, talk out their answers, ask questions, or work in teams in answering this question. Right away, all the colors, shapes, places and people flowed from their minds to the paper in vibrant expressions of individuality! Some artists created two or three works in answering the question. And what do you think their answers were? … This was day one.

Day two stated a little different. We were inside the EKD library for this day’s art workshop. We were out of the heat and instead of creating 2D works of art we were creating in 3D. I wrote on a white board the question from the day before, “What does Community mean to you.” As the artists came through the door, you got the sense that the inside environment created a bit of calm. Their art supplies were laid out at separate tables with their own chairs, instead of benches and everyone sat down quietly. In the middle of the room was a table with a long stretch of white cardboard on it. On the white cardboard we had collaged blacktop road ways with golden yellow lane dashes running down the middle of each road.

Everything else around the roads was blank canvas, wide open space for the imagination to run wild across. We talked with the young artists about building community and asked them to build what community meant to them. A recycling center immerged, a community gardens sprung up, apartment buildings were erected and a Wing Stop filled the land. The Evelyn K Davis Library and shelter took it’s place off the road side.

A pair of smiling paper people literally popped up outside a flower garden, their arms holding a rectangle that read, “Friend group.” By the end of the day, the community had been build in full and it was beautiful. At the close of the week, we had completed multiple creative workshops, however the creative process had just begun. Marissa and I walked to the backside of the park shelter building with the artists and said, “This is where your artwork is going to go!! Your artwork is going public!” They looked super confused and asked us what we meant. We explained that that all these workshops and conversations around what does community mean to you, had a bigger purpose.

Involving community into the creative process of public art is imperative. It shows care for the community you are creating in, rather than inserting yourself and your art there without care. Involving the youth of the community in the creation of public art is an even more meaningful act. There is a certain sense of pride and awe one gets in seeing their work and ideas on a large scale, and in a public space for all to see. Cities gain value through public art – cultural, social, and economic value.

Public art humanizes the built environment and invigorates public spaces. It provides an intersection between past, present and future. Public art is freely accessible. Public art is community-building and community-building requires skill, patience, and creativity. It also requires a good amount of social engagement, funding, personal outreach and relationship-building. Now, we didn’t go into all that detail when sharing the purpose with the artists. We said, your voices and opinions matter, and you deserve to be heard. And in that truth lies the challenge.

The back of the park shelter is 200 sq. feet. With 18 + voices, 30+ drawings and paintings, one large-scale 3D community model, and countless conversations, what would be the mural concept and how would we fit it all together? This is why I really enjoy asking questions, because you find the answers and often the answers are right in front of you. So, what were the answers the artists shared day one?

They were red hand prints, yellow circles with smiley faces, green, blue, red and yellow squares, basketball courts with hearts, American flags, Pride flags, red and blue hearts with splatter paint, blue stick figures with hearts, a pineapple tree with grass and hearts, a red and blue heart, pokemon, mincraft and imposters that read “What I Love about my community is that imposters are making the emergency meeting impossible to get!” There was a colorful water fall with hearts. A teeny, tiny black figure with a black heart. I think we found our answer.

Siri, Marissa and I had been going through every piece of artwork looking for common threads, data points, reoccurring shapes, colors, and patterns that we could extrapolate into a representing voice. The heart appeared again and again and if it was not the central image of the art, it was there somewhere scribbled into the corner or among other abstract lines.

When we looked at day two, the 3D model, there it was again. “What does community mean to you?” The heart became the central image of the mural and what an amazing answer. Around the heart we created a boarder of colorful shapes and patterns taken from the artist’s artworks.

Behind the heart, runs thin, intersecting black lines, connecting the heart to the border. These lines were taken from one of the drawings and represent what keeps our heart connected to the things around us. Through the collaborative, creative process, spending time in observation and repeated check-ins, we were able to find a place, space and color for every voice. Art is the great connector and when it comes to building community, sometimes you can create the thing you are a part of or want to be a part of. Taking the time to identify what we have in common and what that means, can start at a table, or with a paintbrush or a visit to the park.

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