by Sally Hindman
“We turn outward, attracted by the beauty we see in created things without realizing that they are only a reflection of the real beauty. And the real beauty is within us.” — Father Ernesto Cardenal
When Father Ernesto Cardenal, a Catholic priest, poet and theologian, became the Minister of Culture of Nicaragua in the idealistic years of the Sandinista government, the creation of public murals was one of the highest priorities he brought to his new role, as someone deeply committed to “liberating art” — art that facilitated making the voices of people heard.
Murals, for Cardenal, were a vehicle for making the voices of people heard and a means of exploring solutions to problems faced by neighborhoods and communities. They expressed the soul of humanity. Thus, the wonder of visiting Nicaragua during the Sandinista years was the amazing richness of the public art being created by its empowered and very hope-filled people. Colorful, rich murals abounded!
Similarly, the revolutionary idealism and creative spirit of the Black Panther movement was expressed in the work of Panther Minister of Culture Emory Douglas who, only blocks from Youth Spirit Artworks’ present-day studio in Berkeley, gave voice to the African American community, printing dozens of artworks “of the people, for the people,” and disturbing the peace by highlighting images of black power and lifting up the police brutality experienced by so many.
The murals created through the leadership of Youth Spirit Artworks’ young artists in the last eight years carry that revolutionary and idealistic spirit. Our murals capture the deep concerns and the untold stories of the community in which we are embedded and they express the views and cherished values of youth, most born and raised in South and West Berkeley.
It’s not surprising that for their first mural, in the summer of 2009, on the Bay Records Building at Ellis and Alcatraz, the young artists engaged in Youth Spirit’s “Music on Our Minds” mural, led by senior artists Edythe Boone, Jose Gonzalez and David Stern Gottfried, with 23 young painters actively participating, chose to celebrate the social and musical leaders of our Berkeley neighborhood.
This first mural portrayed historic musicians from Billie Holiday to Jimi Hendrix, but also lifted up local heroes such as Richie Smith, South Berkeley’s “mayor,” as a central figure holding a drum, and Johnny Tolbert, the longtime leader of South Berkeley’s amazingly expressive rhythm and blues band “The Theng.”
Youth wanted to lift up these leaders who were the weft and weave that made up the fabric of our neighborhood. They also were honoring and respecting the legacy of Bay Records, which had been in the neighborhood for 50 years, and yet was facing imminent closure.
As artist Francisco Letelier describes one of his values in mural painting in a September 2016 article in Inequality.org, Youth Spirit Artworks artists seek to uncover the narrative of what isn’t being expressed by the mainstream media in their murals.
In this way, when they worked with senior artist Pancho Pescador in the summer of 2013 following the Trayvon Martin verdict, despite the deluge of media coverage of the exploited face of this murdered youth and its impact on their spirit, they chose not to paint a mural depicting Trayvon Martin, but instead to go deeper — far deeper, to the source of life itself — with the content of their mural. They painted “Agua Es Vida,” (Water is Life), expressing their belief in preserving the living water, the fundamental element that protects and nurtures us all.
At the time the court decision about Trayvon Martin came down, the whole country was galvanized over the tragic death of this youth. The youth felt that, in a way, it would be exploitive of the pain he had experienced if they just repeated how the media was portraying him. Instead, they tried to convey what is most important through their mural, and cut through commercial news bites and said, “This is what we care about.”
When YSA artists sought to express their vision of black beauty and power, they turned to the image of singer Lauryn Hill, a member of the Fugees who became a solo artist and released “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” They painted her face and hair in a temporary mural in 2014 to cover graffiti on the Gina Beauty Shop building at Alcatraz and Adeline in South Berkeley.
However, when they were funded to do a more elaborate mural for the site, as part of the Bay Area Mural Festival in the fall of 2016, led by senior artist Angel Jesus Perez, YSA artist Deven Amarah recreated Lauryn Hill, deepening the tone of her skin and giving her even more strength and self-confidence in the characterization. Their powerful image of Lauryn Hill communicated what they consider beautiful in their innate being.
Similarly, in their “Visions of Mother Nature Tile Mural and Bench,” a project honoring 101-year-old homeless activist Frances Townes, YSA young artists, led by senior artist Wesley Wright, expressed the loving Spirit of a genderless “mother nature,” the loving mother that wraps her/his/their arms around each of us in embrace of all we are and the whole world’s creatures. Youth artists created tile fish, birds, planets, moons and other imagery for this mural.
Mural Art and Liberation
The murals that young artists have created in Berkeley in working with Youth Spirit Artworks are a deep expression of our humanity and spirit. The youth are interpreting key issues and expressing their deepest feelings and thoughts through public art. For one moment in time, it’s a way of expressing something deeply felt that wants to come out.
These murals have been deeply empowering to our youth because they’re a really important way of making their voices heard. It enables them to be prophets in the community by expressing their feelings about gentrification and displacement, and their deep community concerns about issues like public health and social justice. The murals are a creative way of putting their stamp on something — a public art form that enables them to communicate their deepest messages to the world.
I think that art is a mystical expression of the spirit, and of God. In that way, murals are a deep expression of spirit. They are people’s artistic interpretations of their most meaningful experiences.
They are real prophets and have incredibly important messages that we all need to hear. So it’s wonderful that they are communicating those messages to the community through their art. They’re today’s prophets and we need to recognize them as that, instead of criticizing them and scapegoating them so often.
The issues that the young artists have expressed in their murals since 2009 have included: music as culture, views of blackness and beauty, toxic pollution and its impact on our society, gentrification and displacement and migration, capitalism and the exploitive poison of capitalism, and health care. Health care is going to continue to be a theme in the mural they’re going to be doing this summer.
They’ve also created beautiful visions of mother nature and feminine spirit. They’ve done amazing tile murals of animals and fish and birds. They’ve put a lot of animals in their murals, including native animals, and that’s been delightful.
In their “Heal Thy City” mural, they did gorgeous paintings of wild animals. In the mural they just did at the U-Haul building, they painted a bear catching a fish, a frog on a rock, a big pelican. They do a lot of wildlife.
They’re making art about wildlife in one of the most densely populated areas of our community, an area that is almost devoid of parks and public space, and devoid of animals and wild nature. They’re putting the animals back that might have once been here, and that would be here in a more natural environment.
The mural artistry of Youth Spirit Artworks will continue this summer. Angel Jesus Perez was funded by the East Bay Fund for Artists of the East Bay Community Foundation to do a painted mural on the subject of visions of mother nature. It will be a gorgeous signature mural on our YSA building at 1740 Alcatraz Avenue and it will be related to the tile mural on the wall below (a visionary mural depicting mother nature and celebrating the life of Frances Townes).
They’re also doing a mural on alternatives to sugar-sweetened beverages that’s funded by the Berkeley soda tax grant.
All of these murals are going to be part of the Alcatraz Alley Mural Park that we are creating on Alcatraz Avenue between Adeline and Ellis streets. It’s a whole series of murals.
Our goal is to have a mural park that is the vision of youth, in the vein of the murals in the Mission in San Francisco. We’ll create a whole series of youth-led murals on issues of concern to youth in the community that they want to make statements about.
Inspiration of Mentors
The youth derive continual inspiration from Victor Mavedzenge, YSA Art Director, who is a mentor to all our youth and who has been so fundamental in shaping their lives and their artistic direction. He is the lead teacher, and we need to credit and celebrate and honor him.
Edythe Boone is a longtime neighborhood resident and has been an inspiration to everybody. She was the senior artist for our very first large mural in 2009, the “Music on Our Minds” mural. They painted musicians, including Richie Smith, the “mayor of South Berkeley.” It was a huge beginning statement of youth concerns and cultural values.
Two other artists should be mentioned as formative mentors in our art. Rev. Alan Laird led our creation of Art Benches in 2008, a creative effort to beautify Adeline Street and spread a message of healthy living. He’s a huge inspiration for everything we do at Youth Spirit Artworks.
Charles Curtis Blackwell is a huge, larger-than-life presence at Youth Spirit Artworks. He is an artist-in-residence leading writing workshops three days a week, and is inspiring our artists both in their poetry and writing, as well as their visual arts. His artistic influence permeates everything at Youth Spirit Artworks.
“You can never stop and as older people, we have to learn how to take leadership from the youth, and I guess I would say that this is what I’m attempting to do right now.” — Angela Davis
“Children are our greatest treasure. They are our future.” — Nelson Mandela
Sally Hindman is the executive director of Youth Spirit Artworks in Berkeley.
*** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***
“The Displacement of Beauty and Migration of Gentrification.”
This newly designed mural in Berkeley was designed and created by Youth Spirit Artworks lead muralist Angel Jesus Perez, with YSA artists Ryan McAllister, Will Vaughn, Gregory Belvin, Maxx Bernard, Brandon Harris and Deven Amirah.
Angel Jesus Perez explains, “This mural project started in October 2016, and the design process was done carefully with the intention of getting input from the direct establishments that would see this mural every day. Most of the designs in the mural were drawings submitted by youth who were interested in the theme of gentrification. Having experienced the disgusting problems of gentrification and displacement growing up, it was really fun painting and using youth’s designs to illustrate gentrification as a monster we must combat. Youth also saw deforestation and capitalism as an agent towards Gentrification.
“The imagery on the right side of the mural reflects the displacement of animals in their habitat, caused by deforestation, followed by the demons and monsters of capitalism. Monarch butterflies represent beauty and migration; they migrate from Mexico, the U.S and Canada throughout the year, just like many immigrants that migrate for better living and opportunities.”