E: How did you know you wanted to be an artist?
A: I had this trio of friends we went to high school together and we all ended up at the University of Massachusetts together and we all were artists. Beyond people who liked to draw, we all just had that feeling that art is important and it's real and it's stitched into our lives in a way that we're not going to get it out.
E: Like you couldn't separate your art life from the rest of your life.
A: Exactly, and that felt exactly right, you know? It felt comfortable to be identifying with that. I am a creator. I am someone who loves to make, someone who loves to observe, record, tell stories, things like that. And so the three of us really worked off each other. We all had our own things going in different directions, but I know we really took strength from having the other two around us whose presence said, “There are really other people in the world like this.” And at one point, Pasqualina (one of these friends) painted a mural. It just put something in my mind that that is something people can do. At the end of college I had to make a body of work to graduate. I had been thinking about what to do and it just sort of dawned on me, that the way to make work that you don't have to submit to this gallery culture, is to skip the gallery and put it in a place where everyone can see it. And I thought "Murals! It's brilliant!" As long as I can find someone who will allow me to paint on their wall, there is then nothing that can keep me from taking my best ideas and putting them in front of the whole world. That was incredible! That was an amazing new thought to have, and then when I did find a wall that was available to me, it was a beginning of an adventure that was the next twelve years of my life. That really felt like a new step because murals are very different in that they're public art. I didn't know this at the time but I began to learn very quickly that public art is very different than private art.
E: In what way?
A: Oh there's so much. Prior to my first mural, when I heard people talking about "community" events or "community" art, I had sort of a negative connotation with those words. I felt like “community” in that context meant it was going to be watered down, that it wasn't going to be as good as something that was made by someone working in their studio being real, making something wonderful. I had this notion that it meant it would be forced and a little superficial. That's the idea that I had. When I went to paint my mural, my first one, (It is in Northamption, MA) I went sort of imagining that I'm just in my studio, making another painting. I'm not thinking of the people around me or anything like that, I'm just making a good painting. But when that happened, when I first started, I became so terrified because I realized there were hundreds of people driving past me, watching me, every hour.
I thought, "What if I mess up?" Because I mess up in paintings all the time, you know, like I'm in my studio and I mess up on paintings constantly and you correct them and whatever. It's a completely different thing to make a 16 foot tall painting and your working in public. In a studio, you're working in private and you don't have to worry about anyone looking over your shoulder, correcting you, saying your idea is stupid, all these different things...whereas in public, you have no idea what people are going to say. Anyway, I was feeling really, really afraid about what people were going to say and I couldn't proceed. I was there at the wall and I could not physically proceed because I was too scared.
So I stood there at the wall and prayed. Inwardly I was like, "I know I'm supposed to be here and this feels exactly right but, how do I do it? The idea that came as I listened in my thought was, "This is your opportunity to give a gift." It was so simple, yet it floored me. That thought changed everything. Prior to that, I had thought this was about me expressing myself, but after that I realized this is not about "expressing myself" as such. Rather, this is about giving something that is going to make the community better. Someone who is walking home from work and they've had a rotten day will feel “Oh that's beautiful!” or the kids are walking by and they just have it in their head that there is a beautiful picture over there. This mural can silently influence people's lives just by being beautiful.
That was a complete change to the lens through which I was seeing this event. It stopped being about how I felt, and instead it was about sharing something good. Immediately I had a new feeling of, “Oh man I really want to give a good gift! I want so badly for this to work!”
I find that when I have power, when I have the ability to make a difference, I want so badly to use it well. Whereas when I don't feel like I have power to make a difference, I may be a whole lot less motivated. So, feeling the power to give a beautiful gift was very invigorating.
E: I see your hand pulling almost from your heart.
A: Yeah, it feels that way. Realizing it was a gift to the people of that neighborhood helped me feel more of the power that I have as an artist. I had the power to actually help peoples' hearts. That's when I began to feel a real love for that community, that neighborhood. The word “community” stopped being something that I was skeptical of and started being something that I believed in deeply. It was just about loving people.
E: It wasn't some ideal out in the clouds.
A: Right, and it didn’t mean (like I had thought it would mean) something watered down or insincere. But I knew that this mural isn't watered down at all. I was feeling, "I want this more than anything! I really believe that art can help people." Now, I have come to see that art can influence and even save lives and that's what my art is about. So that was the first step and then the next many years after that were about continuing to explore "How does this actually work? How do I actually influence lives with pictures and poetry and images?