Using Art to Help Our Community (Ep. 147)

Nic has been talking in previous weeks about how we can help our communities heal, and today, she shares her experience connecting with other art teachers and painting a mural in downtown Minneapolis. Amy Cunningham, the leader of the mural team, joins Nic to talk about her inspiration, the process of creation, and how art can help us heal. Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Nic: Last week when I did the podcast, I was formulating some of my personal feelings, my learning lessons, where I am gathering my information about Black Lives Matter, and about protests, and about riots, and well, all the things that are in the media right now, I was talking about my process of why I was speaking to those relevant issues. Today, I’m going to talk about one of the things that I mentioned, one of the call to action events that I decided to go ahead and participate in. And it was going down to Minneapolis, Minnesota, and participating in a group mural that was led by a fellow art teacher of mine.

Her name is Amy Cunningham, and we did go down as a group, as a very large group, and created this work of art. And it wasn’t just our team that participated, but it was definitely the community that was invited in to participate that made this such a very special experience for me, and for the rest of us and for the community. I want to bring Amy Cunningham on today to talk to us about how she came to this project, how she invited us to be part of it. And then of course, what the learning lessons were from our experience. So this is Everyday Art Room, and I’m your host, Nic Hahn.

Hi, Amy. Thank you so much for chatting with us today. We had a really incredible experience together recently, and I wanted to share it with our listeners. So first of all, why don’t you just explain who you are and how we know each other, and what your educational background is?

Amy: Okay, well, I’m Amy Cunningham and I live in Princeton, Minnesota. I work for the Elk River school district as an art teacher. And I know Nicole through teaching in the ISD 728 district. I think I’ve known you for probably 15 years, or 14 years, and then we’ve collaborated together on a few different things. And I guess that’s it.

Nic: Yeah. And you’ve always, whenever possible, you’ve been involved with the artist training cards, and like you said, we’ve worked on the same team for many years with our district. So you are currently teaching at a middle school level, but you have worked elementary as well, correct?

Amy: Yes. And then I teach classes out of my studio as well, and so I’ve taught ages two to 92. I’m a working artist and I’ve created a lot of collaborative murals in the past, and I’ve done a lot of commission work for people. I do art shows during the summer. Art is everything to me, so I just make sure I include it as much as I can.

Nic: Yeah, you really do, and really have a gamut of mediums. You talk about painting and we’re going to talk about that today, but you’ve done stained glass and you’ve done sculptural, and you’ve been in the theater working with that. I mean, you really are an artsy lady, that’s for sure.

Amy: Yeah, I guess so.

Nic: All right. So you contacted me recently to invite me and the rest of our team, and then additional people later on, to take part in a painting that we did on the wall of, well, the boarded up walls of downtown or uptown Minneapolis. And we want to know about first of all, how did you become involved with that, and how did that come to be? Let’s talk about the beginning.

Amy: Okay. Well, as we know, we’ve watched nationally on the news, the protesting with the Black Lives Matter movement and how it went sour really quickly with rioting, and the streets of uptown were destroyed. Fires, things like that. And so a lot of, well, I’ll just speak for myself. So for myself, I sat here up north in my happy little la la land where I have no drama, and I watched it all unfold on TV. And my heart was just broken for the people who live there, and the people who are going through all of this. And as I was thinking about my summer and no art shows, and things like that because of the quarantine, and watching all this happen, I just wanted to know what I could do to help. But I felt helpless.

And so I was online and I had gotten an email from the Uptown Art Association, because I applied to be in the art fair, but the art fair was canceled. And so they emailed all of the artists on their roster and asked if anybody was willing to volunteer to go paint on the boarded up windows of uptown. The reason they wanted to do that was so that they could bring some light and hope to the city, because it was so dark and dim and scary down there. And immediately I just said, yeah, I’ll do it. I can paint. And I’m thinking, I’ll get a door or a window, but I got an entire storefront for Majors and Quinn Booksellers in uptown. And it was two panels, nine feet by 17 feet, and then an additional panel that was about maybe 10 by 10 or something like that. And I thought, oh my God, I’m only one person.

Nic: Yep.

Amy: So that’s when I reached out to you, and I reached out to my other team members. We’re fortunate enough, Nicole, I don’t know how many art teachers we have altogether. Something like 18-

Nic: I think we’re sitting right around 20, yeah.

Amy: Or 20, yeah. And so I reached out to my art teacher team at first, and then I realized we’re even going to need more help. So I reached out to just the teachers in general, and to my friends and family. And that’s how it came about.

Nic: Yeah. So we get this towards the end of school, this request from Amy. And it was just a couple of people to start out with. And I think it just grew, I know you called me once we had a small team of five of us, you called and you said, “I’m just going to put it out there to a few more people.” And I think overall your team was filled with educators from our district, but we had additional people as well. Friends, neighbors, that type of a situation, wouldn’t you say?

Amy: Yeah. And in fact, if I hadn’t put a cap on it, I think we would have had even 50 people. I mean, it was just-

Nic: I agree.

Amy: And I think, and what I heard from the people who volunteered with us was that, first of all, I said, thank you so much to everybody for coming. And that it made my heart full and it made me feel proud. And their answers in unison pretty much were of course, we just wanted to know what we could do to help. How can we help? And art is how we help people.

Nic: It really is. And that was the amazing experience that we really experienced while we were down there, was just what we know as art teachers all the time, but it came to happen within this community of Minneapolis as well. Can you talk a little bit about the experiences of, even from start to finish, we started with primer and we started designing, and when we started painting what was happening by the passersby.

Amy: Okay, so as you said, of course, we started with primer and we started on the hottest day of the year, and it got to 97 degrees that day. And just to put it in perspective, it got to 97 degrees and we were painting on a metal wall in full sun. With the south sun. It was so hot, our paint dried the second it touched the metal, and our brushes, I think, pretty much dried too when they touched the metal. No, but we started painting, and we had a plan. And I just remember, even before we started, Nicole, that you had asked, do you have a plan? Should we have a design? Is there something in place?

And I was like, we’re just going to have to wing it because we’re going to have really hot metal, we’re painting on barn siding, so it has ridges. And I just want this to kind of grow with the people in the community and invite people to come in and paint with us. And when you do that, you can’t really have total control over all of it. So what I did was I just designed a basic outline of circles and sun rays. And we only planned on doing one panel to start because we weren’t sure, but when we got there, we saw how many people we had, we figured we could do the whole thing. And then we just started working on it. And immediately as we were working on it, people started to gather. People would go park their car and you have to understand this is uptown, so parking your car is a situation. People paid for parking. People parked six, seven, eight blocks away.

My daughter had to park seven blocks away on Tuesday, and they would park just to be able to come back and talk to us. And they weren’t even realizing that we were going to rope them into painting with us. They just thought they were going to come and say thank you to us. So they were just so thankful to have us there and to see their city coming back to life. I think a lot of the stories that I heard from people were stories of hope. Stories of please get the word out that it’s not scary down here. Please tell people that we want, we want people to come. We want people to see this artwork before the artwork gets taken down, because the artwork is temporary. It’s only up on the boarded-up windows that need to stay boarded up. Our mural in particular, only one panel is going to stay up the whole summer. The other stuff is coming down even within the next few days or weeks.

Nic: Right. Which is good. That’s what we want. We want those windows to appear again. But there was a lot of damage. A lot of glass was broken. And because of that, it’s months before it can be fixed, is what I was hearing from the business owners.

Amy: Yes, yes.

Nic: Now, this also coincided with the opening of the businesses after the Corona restrictions. I mean, it was hand in hand.

Amy: Yep. So Majors and Quinn opened the day that we showed up, they were planning to open at noon. So there we were making a big mess of their front step. But it was hard to know that they were opening because if you can picture it, all of the businesses are boarded up, so their hours are no longer visible. You can’t see inside their stores to know that anyone’s there, that the lights are on. And so it really worked out well because having us there brought people by, and people wanted to come see what we were doing. And then we were able to spread the word. And then I called the news media and let them know that they should come and promote the bookstore and let people know that the bookstore is opening. And so they came and when they came, then more people came. And people who came by immediately, I reached out to everyone that I was able to, “Hey, do you want to paint with us?”

And most of them would look at us like what? And then I’m like, no, seriously take a brush. We’ll show you what to do. And a lot of people jumped right in which I loved, but some people were kind of scared like, “Oh, I don’t want to ruin anything.” And so we just said, “Hey, we’re art teachers. That’s our job. We teach people how to make art. So just come on in, just join us.” And some people joined for five minutes, and some people spent an hour or two, and some people even came back the second day. So it was really cool.

Nic: People reached out to you, it was really cool. We were sharing it on social media of course, and explaining our purpose. And you had people reaching out to can I be involved. How can I be involved? And I think that was important too, because with every single hand that became involved, there were new stories from the community members, or what this was doing. What were some of the stories that really stick with you with this being so fresh in our memory here?

Amy: Well, one of them was, so let’s see, there was a woman, an elderly woman who was being walked by with her caregivers, and they were taking her out throughout the community. I think this is a secondhand story because it was Ina who talked with her, but she was being walked through the community to see all of the murals because she’s a retired art teacher, but she’s suffering from dementia at this time. And so her caregivers were walking her through the community to see the murals, to help spark her memory of art. And then they wanted to help her start to create art again at her own home. And so she came by and when they found out that she could paint with us, they were super excited.

And so she got to connect back with her pre-illness self and start making art again. And so that one really stood out. It stood out to me. There were two, well, there were three young ladies with their family and they were, I don’t know if they were Indian or what their nationality was, but they didn’t speak English very well. And so it was hard for me to communicate with them. But as soon as I just gave them the brush and started pointing to the things on the wall and showing them the artwork, we just connected with the language of art. So just that barrier of speaking the same language, it just goes away with art. Art speaks to everybody. And so that was really cool and they stayed and they were so proud of themselves. And then there was lots of little kids, little tiny kids that came and painted.

There was a brother and sister who came and they are of the Black Lives Matter community, and they were pointing out how they were enjoying seeing all of the murals that were speaking to their people and to their issues. And that it was speaking to the compassion and to the love, but also to the frustrations, and just how unified it helped them to feel. And one of the statements that, and I’m sorry, I can’t recall their names, but one of the statements that she made was that now we feel like we’re able to breathe. Now we can breathe. Because now the issues are out there and people are coming together instead of dividing. And so that was really important to me that really stood out to me, and they came both days and painted. And then another thing that she said was that when she was younger, she hated art, because she didn’t feel like she was as good as her peers.

And she was always watching what her classmates were doing, and so it made her feel inferior. And so I just supported her and she created a flower on the mural and that’s what she was comfortable with doing. And then she loved it enough that she came back the next day and wanted to show it off to her friends. She brought different people with her the next day.

Nic: Yes!

Amy: And she was probably my age. So, I mean, it’s never too late to try something new. And it was just really cool.

Nic: I’d like to point out, Amy’s age is my age, and we’re around the late thirties, early forties, right? Somewhere around there. It’s a podcast, there’s wrinkles involved, there’s wrinkles involved. But yeah, I think that’s what I found too, Amy. I found just the paint brush in our hands opened up a safety of sharing stories and sharing conversation. And for me and you, I heard this from you earlier, just being outside of the metro area, it was important to understand the thoughts of the community members, not through media, but through experience.

Amy: Right, right. That is so important. And then it helps you to feel connected when you can put a face with what’s going on. And I’ve done community murals before, I’ve invited troubled youth to come and paint with me in areas where graffiti is happening. And instead of having them getting their hand slapped for creating graffiti instead, let’s just create a purposeful piece of art that you can be proud of and take ownership in your community.

And so that’s why I decided to do that this way with this mural. Because as I mentioned to you, Nicole, I think on Monday, it’s not my mural. It’s their mural. They’re the ones that are there looking at it every day, passing by that building. And if they can look at something and see that they created something beautiful and that they were part of it, and then they can feel proud about it, then that’s way more important than me having my exact perfect image the way I had it in my head on the wall. I should say that the reason that I really… It took me a while to get to that place, where I can let things go and have freedom, and let things happen organically. And I can’t think of who wrote it, but one of my favorite books in the whole entire world is The Secret Life of Bees.

Nic: Okay.

Amy: And I don’t know if you’re familiar with that book, but in it, one of the characters talks about how she has this gorgeous, beautiful house. And she always thought she would paint it robin’s egg blue, because that’s her favorite color. But her younger sister has special needs, and has trouble with depression and stuff, and she wanted to paint it pink. And it filled her heart up so big to paint it pink. That’s what she wanted. And it was going to make her the happiest in the world, and pink was the other woman’s least favorite color, but she painted it pink anyways, because she knew that it was going to bring happiness to her little sister. And if just painting a house pink could bring that much happiness to someone, then she didn’t need to paint it blue.

And I just believe in that. I mean, of course you have your moments, where you just want it your way, but if it can bring a smile to someone else’s face, why not just let it go.

Nic: Right. And that’s what I appreciate about you, is you do that for your students in your classroom, you are open to exploration and process, and it is one of your strongest skills. It’s something I admire in you very much.

Amy: Oh, thank you.

Nic: Yeah, absolutely. Amy, I want to thank you for taking the time to, with us, for gathering our group together and giving us the opportunity to be part of this time in history. Thanks so much.

Amy: Thank you, Nicole.

Nic: Amy Cunningham really took the time to make a difference. She listened to the needs and as an artist had an answer. We, as artists, were asked by the Uptown Arts Council to have a part in this healing. One of the participants who partook in this whole event, he later on said to me, he brought his two kids down. Ron Hussbed is his name, he is a social studies teacher at one of our schools in our district. And he brought his kids down, and he recently tweeted out his experience. And it was something to the effect of putting a fresh coat of paint on the hurt of Minneapolis. And I thought that was powerful, because that’s exactly what we were doing. You heard the conversations that took place. And that was just a few. We had hundreds of people.

Nic: By the time that it was all done, hundreds of hands had taken part in creating this mural. Amy is awesome at letting art be art and the flow just happen, and creativity happened within an experience. And this mural will scream that to anyone who looks at it, plus the importance that she put on the community being involved so that they who live in the area can walk by at any time and say, I painted that. I took part in that. That was already happening on day two when we were there to witness, but we know that this will continue to happen because of the power of art. Guys, use your superpower of art to do good, and make a difference in your community.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.