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I recently had the distinct pleasure of connecting with Rafael López, illustrator of this month’s feature book Maybe Something Beautiful: How Art Transformed a Neighborhood. I am so excited to share Rafael’s story, in his own words, of using the power of art to transform and unite a community.
Why make community murals?
I’ve been asked this question many times. How did it all come about? There was an evolution of events that led me to creating community murals.
In 1997 we bought an old warehouse in downtown San Diego that was originally a car garage. An artist’s dream come true. Well . . . sort of. The space had incredible potential, but it needed a face lift. We began by removing car parts from the yard and cleaning fifty years of grime off the industrial floor. When I closed my eyes I could visualize it. So I did a lot of eye closing! With love and lots of patience, we were able to convert the inside into a cozy space to live and create fun stuff. My long desired studio-living space was finally ready. When you opened the front door, however, and walked outside, clearly our neighborhood needed a dose of love and attention. The effects of blight were all around and many people in our vicinity looked sad and hung their heads as they walked the streets. We looked around and saw nothing but drab and gray with buildings, streets and sidewalks wearing years of neglect. Walls scratched, tagged and marked were sad reminders of abandonment.
Neighbors had their windows and curtains closed in an attempt to keep the gray and blight from invading their homes. Living part-time in Central Mexico, I was immediately struck by the way people downtown were afraid and never looked you in the eye or smiled. Instead of exchanging a “Buenos Dias” in bright streets they kept to themselves and walked quickly from place to place. That good energy in Mexico makes you want to wear bright colors and paint your home in vivid oranges, fiery yellows, rich welcoming pinks, warm ochre and colonial blues, colors expressing community and a sense of place.
Back in my gray neighborhood we decided to invite friends, artists and a few neighbors inside to talk about any ideas that could help us bring a little positive change. We needed to find a good excuse to get the other locals from diverse backgrounds out of their shuttered houses and apartments to meet and connect to each other. After long hours and many days, the memories of colorful Mexico came flowing back and the concept of making community murals here was born. What if we asked the property owner of one of the tagged gray walls for permission to decorate it with bright colors painted by the same people that lived around it? What if that included all kinds of people, young and old, kids, parents, grandparents, artists, non-artists, people of all walks of life who would love to spend a little of their time and bring some light and love back into their neighborhood, together? An effort of many that would live for years and remind the next generation that we decided to help each other.
The idea spread like wildfire to other gray communities with the same need for color and a sense of place. As an illustrator who has spent many years painting alone in my studio, this was a refreshing way to use my trade in a fresh way. Instead of painting for companies, I was painting for people who smiled when they saw my designs and wanted to be part of the project. I have made so many new friends and realize that art can be a powerful, compelling tool to make positive change and bring diverse people together. I also found out how lucky I am to be an illustrator.