A Remarkable Memorial Mural and Its Story

MLK mural Indianapolis

Photo copyright 2018 Sierra Gillard, used with permission from photographer and subject.

Here’s a story worth telling, about art and hopefulness.

Although I’m a fine art painter in my own right, I’ve increasingly found satisfaction in facilitating “non-artists” in the enterprise of art making. I’ve developed an inclusive process by which virtually anyone, including small children and people with physical or intellectual disabilities, can be a participant in creating a compelling, monumental artwork. (Of course, skilled artists are welcome as well!) This process necessarily involves large numbers of people.

My most recent story began with a discussion I had with one of my daughters last Christmas. She and her husband were visiting for the holiday, and I wanted to hear about her new job in Indianapolis. She was teaching at an inner city school there in a pretty rough environment. She recounted that one of the students had been shot over Thanksgiving break, and that when school resumed, fights had been breaking out over the incident.

The high school where she was teaching had combined two different high schools for the current school year. Then at the close of the school year, these high school students were going to be moved again, and the school was to become a middle school for the next school year.

My daughter recounted conversations she had with students during a time of sharing thoughts. She told me that pretty much across the board the students feel like nothing they do matters to other individuals. Certainly not nationally, but not even locally. Their voices don’t matter. What they do doesn’t matter.

Pointlessness and hopelessness are not good ingredients for creating a culture of life. Especially for a demographic that has a lot stacked against it.

I wondered out loud about how something like the Fire & Ice Festival murals would go over at her school. For the past 2 years, the small church I attend had been helping me put on these big art-making events, each culminating in a giant public mural. The point of the process is that each individual paints a small square of the larger picture. Each tile bears the personal expression of the individual, while contributing to a larger mural that the entire city can enjoy – a colorful metaphor for community.

We envisioned the possibility that the Arlington High School (AHS) students could see such a mural as both a legacy that they could leave to the incoming middle school students, but also be a way that they could leave their individual mark in a creative, positive, and lasting way. It seemed like these students could use something that would feed their souls; to be part of something big and meaningful. I understood that the staff and teachers at AHS already work hard to deliver this, and this seemed like something that I could contribute, even if from a distance.

I cautioned my daughter that it would be a ton of work for her, but she took it on. She ran it past her principal and then the staff. Even without being able to fully know what was coming they said “yes.” I ran the idea past my pastor to see if our church, Beggars’ Gate, would be willing to cover the cost of my time. The high school would cover materials, installation, and its own time. It was now officially a collaboration between a little church in Loveland, Colorado, and a large high school in urban Indianapolis, Indiana.

The school principal approved a design bearing a likeness of Martin Luther King Jr., which was fitting for this year because 2018 is the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s tragic assassination.

I completed my part and shipped off over 750, six inch square, prepped and coded tiles to Indianapolis. As the painting began at AHS, the students got into it and so did the staff. My daughter had a friend come in and DJ the painting area to create a good atmosphere. Good things happened. Creativity flowed. Dancing ensued.

community art project

Some kids, “hall-walkers” who have not been able to find their place in an academic setting, found their place in this setting.

At least one kid who is artistically gifted spent over 2 hours on his 6 inch square tile. He said it was the first time he had used paint.

A Behavior Specialist on staff said, “You know what? If we would’ve done this earlier in the year, I think our kids would’ve done better. It’s inspiring. I’m inspired!”

As the individual painting was going on, no one really knew what was coming. A few kids snuck their tiles out, presumably because they didn’t want to give them up. But when the seemingly random pieces all came together and went up on the wall, the result was spectacular. A lot of hugs were exchanged.

Congrats to Principal Law and the staff and students at Arlington High School – you did a great job!  Thank you Beggers’ Gate Church, for your support!

Martin Luther King Jr memorial

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Mural, painted by the students and staff of Arlington High School. Formatted by Scott Freeman, 2018. (12.5 x 25.5 ft)

Obviously, a mural is not going to solve anyone’s problems. But if, at least for some students, it provided even some sense of being part of something transcendent; of having a unique place in community; of seeing themselves as being mentors to younger kids; of creative potential breaking out; then I think that’s a good thing. Maybe that’s about the most we can expect from art.

inner city high school project

Find your place in the bigger picture

Getting a vision? Contact me about bringing an experience like this to where you are.
My email is scottnmollie@yahoo.com.

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In Memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr quote

Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. For many, King’s assassination marked the end of the civil rights movement’s strategy of non-violence.

Some believe his assassination was the result of a conspiracy involving the United States government. King’s family eventually even filed a wrongful death suit against the government, which it (sort of) “won.”

As news of his assassination became known, riots broke out in over 100 cities across America. For many fighting for the cause of civil rights and racial equality, King’s death must’ve signaled a loss of hope that the entrenched white power structures could be reformed through peaceful means.

So…fight fire with fire. Fear with fear. It seems that violence is what works. Force gets things done.

But does it?

The human problem is the human heart. King was a remarkable leader because he understood the problem. As a follower of Jesus, King rightly saw that the solution to the human problem was the strategy of changing hearts for good. Violence never does that. Unfortunately, violence has its place in our broken world, but only when there is no hope for understanding and empathy.

I don’t believe we are at that place yet. I think understanding and empathy have barely been tried. But violence and intolerance can seem easier, faster, and more satisfying to hearts that are hurting.

Following is one of my (reluctantly) favorite quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I believe these words are true, but they are extremely difficult to carry out. This is a hard saying. It is even difficult to read. But I think he is right. His strategy transcends conspiracies, governmental power, intolerance, and hatred:

I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up against our most bitter opponents and say: We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, but we’ll still love you. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.    — A Christmas Sermon for Peace on Dec 24, 1967

These words, spoken 4 months before his murder, echo the words of Jesus and the apostle Paul: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21.)

It’s a messy business living in a broken world with broken people, and we are still far from the destination that King envisioned. I believe our hope must ultimately come from outside of ourselves; from the Savior who made inward transformation possible through spiritual rebirth. Regardless of how much progress we make in this corrupt age, He promises unity and justice in the age to come. Jesus invites us to experience the realities of that future age right now, in this present age. I think Dr. King, the Baptist minister and activist, would be pleased if the occasion of his death would spur some to accept the invitation of Jesus to step into His kingdom of light.