ARTIST INTERVIEW: Colin David Harris discusses AHC’s new mural in West Oakland
A wonderful new mural is gracing the underpass of the 580 freeway at San Pablo in West Oakland. I can’t tell you how many hundreds of times I must have driven past this previously blank stretch of concrete in my 10 years of living in West Oakland. I always thought… Man, it’s too bad there isn’t something fabulous painted there. I even dreamt up various artistic scenarios, but they stayed firmly planted in my brain and never made their way into fruition in the real world. Until now.
Organized and implemented by Attitudinal Healing Connection, Inc. (AHC) – an organization whose mission is to build healthy communities by breaking the cycle of violence, through platforms for creative expression and communication for children, youth, adults and families – the piece is part of the Oakland Super Heroes Mural Project, slated to produce 5 more murals in this stretch of West Oakland adjacent to Emeryville. I can say from personal experience, this neighborhood could use a little love, and I’m thrilled about the prospect of transforming a somewhat bleak stretch through art filled with positive messages of vibrant community. If you feel the same way, please help by support the project. Donations are needed but there are other ways to get involved as well.
Lots has already been written about this project – I am a bit late to the game as usual (damn that day job!), so I’m not going to try to encapsulate everything you could possibly want to know. Rather I’ll let one of the artists, Colin David Harris, share his experience of involvement through our conversation below, and I’ll include some links at the end to other relevant posts.
ARTIST INTERVIEW with Colin David Harris
* How did you get involved in the project? Did you respond to the Call for Artists put out by the organizing entity, Attitudinal Healing Center (AHC) in Oakland?
I am one of the Art Esteem Instructors that work for the Attitudinal Healing Connection, teaching art enrichment classes during school hours to K-8 students throughout Oakland. I applied for the mural project through them along with two other teachers, and was one of about 12 artists that came together to work on the project.
* I understand AHC orchestrated much of the design work with local middle & high school students. Were you involved at all in this stage?
I was not involved with the students at McClymonds High School where the students helped to design the mural but was teaching at West Oakland Middle School in the hopes of working towards another mural concept. Amana Harris, the director of Art Esteem, worked with the high school students in conjunction with Aaron De La Cruz and lead artist David Burke. (more on these three lead artists)
* Can you talk about the experience of either having input into the design, or working towards executing someone else’s design, depending on answer to previous question?
The design was already complete once the painters were brought into the mix but David Burke worked very well with the crew and had the concept and reference imagery down. It was a very pleasant experience being able to just paint the students vision and not have to focus on my own.
* I see from your own blog that you work with all kinds of artistic mediums… mixed media, sculpture, printmaking, painting, etc. Had you ever worked on a large scale mural before? If so, how was this experience different (or similar) to previous experiences you had?
I have. In 2006 I was commissioned by the Hospice to paint a mural in the morgue of Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco. This was a very solitary and long mural process but extremely rewarding for me personally and professionally. As an art instructor I have also painted murals at three elementary schools in Oakland through the AHC. These were large scale murals and at Santa Fe Elementary school Ryan Martin and I installed 12 murals that were composed of hundreds of one by one foot wooden tiles that we mounted onto the walls all around the school. The mural on San Pablo Ave. is the largest piece that I have worked on so far.
* What made you want to be involved in this project?
I wanted to be apart of this project to work with a team of artists, and to be apart of such a large scale work that will affect the community so directly. For 2 years I lived on San Pablo ave. and on 34th st. close to where the mural is located. I have worked at various schools in the neighborhood, and done a few steel installations as well. I have a strong desire to add as much joy and beauty to the neighborhood as possible, there are way too many dreary buildings with huge blank walls around not to! It would be great to see West Oakland looking like the mission district in San Francisco in the next five years.
* How many other artists were involved and how did you all work together? Did any of the middle & high school students who worked on the design also paint?
There were about twelve other artists working on this project including an additional six volunteers and high school students that painted throughout. David Burke was the lead artist and he really spent a lot of time orchestrating how we would all work together. Every day we had to assemble and disassemble the scaffolding and store it at the AHC, it was time consuming but everyone did their part.
* Can you talk about the difference, to you personally, between working on a collaborative project like this versus an artistic project you would work on solely as an individual artist? And the difference between working on a public street project versus something that might only be seen in a gallery?
I love working collaboratively with other artists though most of my work has been done alone. I have found that to be the main downside as an artist is that you are forced to work in a solitary environment the majority of the time. While I enjoy solitude more than most I also find that there is more of a spontaneous playfulness that happens when working with others. It was amazing working with this group of painters, all doing our part to complete the massive undertaking. I have often gravitated more towards playing music because of this sense of connection and try to balance between music and fine art as much as possible.
* My understanding is the goal of the project (and the continued mural series – 5 more are to be painted in the next 3 years) is to “revitalize, beautify, uplift, positively transform and bring hope to the West Oakland/Emeryville area.” What are your thoughts about art and its power to transform?
Art has an amazing power to heal, uplift, and shine a light of hope in dark dreary places of the mind. I have seen people whose self image is as negative as you can imagine, find a creative voice for the first time, and in an instant their reality changes. Most people are discouraged from pursuing creative options as a career by their parents and the school system, and suffer through numerous failings in life because they can’t easily integrate into the system. Art or any form of creative expression for that matter can transform lives, instill confidence and change how someone perceives the world around them, from a locked door to an open and inviting place of self discovery. In underserved communities such as West Oakland it can really make a difference in presenting positive outlets for the youth and positive changes to the visual landscape that negatively affect peoples psyches over time. Murals such as this can, if nothing else, at least brighten up someones day for the 5 minutes they walk past that before was just another 5 possibly miserable minutes through the same old concrete jungle.
* Over how long of a period did the actual painting take place? And did you receive any kind of feedback from local neighborhood folks and random passerbys while painting?
The painting of the mural took place over 18 days of straight painting from early in the morning to 5pm every day. Very few painters worked that entire time but it was still a breakneck schedule that got the job done. The feedback we received was overwhelming from the constant deafening horns and thankful exaltations to the many pedestrians that personally thanked us and talked to us during the whole process. There was a very obvious powerful change in the energy under the freeway and it was great to be a part of that shift. It was truly an amazing experience.
* OHA’s website mentions that they surveyed residents of the local neighborhood to describe positive & negative aspects of the neighborhood, as well as their hopes and dreams for the community and future public art pieces. How important is this step to the process?
I would say that this is a very important step in the process. It isn’t as meaningful to fill a neighborhood with outsiders’ ideas of beautification. Not to say that people from outside the community can’t have input and create public art pieces, but to really raise the community up and instill a sense of pride and unity it’s best to have as much input and participation from the people in the neighborhood as possible.
* The mural actually reminds me of a much older mural on San Pablo that I featured on my blog (http://oaktownart.com/2010/04/22/street-tattoo-mural-san-pablo/) in that it depicts positive scenes of an engaged and diverse community. My understanding is the older mural featured real persons and that the images were fashioned together from photographs. Does the new mural feature “real” people? Any thoughts on similarities or differences between the two?
The Mural does feature real people. Many of the people depicted are students at McClymonds that posed for the images. There is also a historical aspect involved near the far left of the mural there are Blues and Jazz musicians painted who actually played at the California Hotel next door and other venues in the area back in the day. They also used real houses from the neighborhood in the painting too.
* Lastly, what’s your favorite color?
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