Standing on the sidewalk between Myrtle and Putnam avenues on Wyckoff is not much of a heartwarming experience, unless you have an urban wasteland fetish or miss the sight of block sized car parks from the surburbs.
Looking East is the almost barren lot of a tire shop. Nothing but a kids upturned tricycle occupies the space. It has been left to face the end of time on its own, behind a poorly erected chain link fence and underneath a no longer functional sign for the Liberty Department store, whose “Y” has partially taken flight in search of the meaning of it’s own existence. Looking West didn’t used to be much more exciting, just a blank 250 foot long and thirty sum-odd foot high yellowish wall of a Food Bazaar. But that was six weeks ago.
Thanks to a rather large group of community members, including the president of Food Bazaar, Groundswell (an art-making community-based organization), a series of foundations and trusts, about a dozen hired kids, several volunteers, dedicated teacher/artist Crystal Bruno and her assistant Lauren Baccus, this wall has become one of the largest and most engaging murals in the neighborhood.
Anyone who has described Bushwick to their friends from other neighborhoods can’t paint a very good picture without mentioning the dozens (maybe hundreds?) of spectacular murals. They come in many styles and from the creative minds of a diverse range of backgrounds, and more than a few of them tackle social issues. For Crystal and her team, teen pregnancy and the shame culture surrounding it was one issue that simply had to be addressed, so they discussed and voted on the message they wanted their mural to send.
“We talked a lot about what the visual culture around this topic is, first of all. So looking at that New York City PSA that went up last year that was pictures of crying babies. It was very mother blaming, very shaming. Crying babies that were suffering and were never going to have a life and it was the mother’s fault for having them young. You know what I mean? It was a very problematic framing of the issue, so we looked at that and talked about what the problems were with that type of narrative and how might we create it differently if we took on that subject,” Crystal explained after the mural’s dedication on Thursday.
The outcome of this community effort is a series of images that, at the very least, prompt passerby to reconsider how young female bodies are treated in visual culture. One of them recalled the all-male witness panel from Congressman Darrell Issa’s committee hearing on birth preventative health care services in 2012. In the mural, shaded overbearing figures of old men sway a female puppet figure on the ropes of oppression atop a federal temple.
Another section depicts a young mother and daughter sitting on a stoop under mocking jesters who decry “shame on you.” Above the scene rests a locked stack of books, two of which are titled, “anatomy” and “her story.” Nearby, a young mother balances an infant and schoolbooks while standing on a swirling alarm clock.
Of course, there are inspirational themes in the mural as well. A huge element to this issue that the crew wanted to illustrate is the intergenerational support between women. Symbols of fertility, power, strength, womanhood and love are abundant in the mural. The centerpiece features two women of different generations emerging from a lotus flower and reaching towards each other in “warrior” pose while standing under a decorated arch representing the path ahead, hence the title of the mural: “Guided Gateways.”
“The beauty about this mural is that it is a piece of conversation, and it is a product of the input provided by the young people that collaborated,” said the congresswoman for the district, Nydia M. Velazquez, during a brief speech at the mural’s dedication.
Other speakers behind the production of this piece had similar praise not just for the artistry of the mural, but the engagement with the youth and the community. According to assistant artist Lauren Baccus this participation went both ways, “just as a testimony to how involved everyone who walked by was: the liquor store across the street left on their lights for us so we could keep working (at night).”
Of course, one of the main purposes of outdoor murals (or street art in general) is engagement with the public eye. It is one of the few art forms that is free for everybody who either seek it out or casually pass it by, and yet it has a profound effect on defining the identity of a community. To Crystal, who painted her first mural only a few blocks away on Knickerbocker and Woodbine in 2006 (which depicts the history of Bushwick in beautiful swirls of symbolism and colors, and is still in prime condition), these murals are a way to change the optics of visual culture.
“It grants access to people who don’t necessarily go to museums or don’t study visual culture to see a really monumental piece of art in their communities. To see themselves in it is really powerful, because we don’t often see ourselves in advertisements. To be able to command a space and decide how you want to be looked at and talked about and what conversations you want around your own image, I think is a really powerful thing, especially as women of color in this country.”
As Bushwick continues along the path of gentrification, the beloved street art that defines what this neighborhood has become is beginning to face challenges to its authenticity. Case in point: the mural/advertisement of Michael Bay’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the once obscure Bogart Street. You know your neighborhood has officially “blown up” when Michael Bay tags it, and it is that boring sell-out nonsense that makes Crystal and her gang’s mural all the more straight-up awesome.
Theirs is a truly gigantic piece of art with a statement that is not seen often enough in Hollywood or in Washington committees. As Crystal put it, “we opened up the conversation and expanded the narrative and flipped the script on the patriarchy. We have honored the goddess within, and challenged the ugly truths around us.”
This message was greeted at its dedication by artists, the district’s Congresswoman, a chain store, a liquor store, a bunch of kids and a community organization, all of whom played a part in putting it there, and it is that heartwarming sense of a unique community with creative spirit that drew so many newcomers to Bushwick in the first place. And many would like it to stay that way. And if Groundswell and all those involved in this mural are given enough of a voice (and walls), it will.
The unveiling of the Groundswell Mural happened on 08/28/14