Walls that Unite

How a cultural exchange project that began in Philadelphia spawned an arts economy in the mountains of Puebla, MX. 

 

Bonds That Unite

We live in complicated times where building cross cultural connections and understanding one another more meaningfully is becoming increasingly difficult.  The increased influence of social media, propaganda, special interest groups, and a hostile political climate has increased tensions between the nations and neighbors alike.  

I view art as a humanitarian effort.   My hope is that the story this project will offer alternative ways of exploring the potential for harmony among people regardless of national identity, social class or skin color.  Our times call for ethical leadership to deliver this message. This project generated an incredible amount of media sensation. I hope our intercultural experience will pave the way for public dialogue and media awareness about the powerful role that artists have in improving not just US/Mexico relations, but global relations.   

Beginning in 2014, I was commissioned by a private US philanthropist to travel to the high mountains of Puebla, Mexico to teach local volunteers the process of how I make mosaic murals. The first mosaic created in Zacatlan was in 2014 when I traveled there with another Philadelphia mosaic artist, Isaiah Zagar to carry out a commission to teach. I was then commissioned by the same philanthropist to return for several years to teach in greater depth the style and methods I'd developed throughout my career as a mosaic artist and instructor.  I remember the first time I got on the plane with thousands of hand-made tile lettering I planned to use to spell out the names of the 58 apple-producing communities that make up the municipal region, high in the mountains of Puebla. I remember how the tiles looked like alphabet soup when my suitcase was passed through the X-ray.  Excited as I was about working in a different culture, I could never have predicted how the mural would eventually grow to epic proportions and become a symbol of that region's cultural identity. 

 The chosen wall surrounded the town’s oldest cemetery, a place whose deceased were primarily Catholic families. The entire mural depicts fascinating subject matter about the town including:  Contemporary and pre-Columbian history, agricultural traditions and techniques of the apple-producing economy, indigenous culture/clothing, and fourteen biblical passages related to eternal life on the entrance to the cemetery.  

Unable to speak Spanish at first, I relied on demonstration of what I'd learned over time and how I'd personalized it, showing each step I take when I approach a wall, how I set up shop in the street, organizing  truckloads of randomly dumped tiles into a color palette, the signature way I cut each of my tiles into organic feathery shapes, the fluid space between tiles, the wonders of hand tools, the hazards of hand tools etc. I tailored the initial design to accomadate our varying levels of skill and gradually moved on to more challenging techniques as my students' skills developed.  All the while I was learning Spanish and beginning to understand more about the history and cultural dynamics that shape modern life in a traditional pueblo.  In three years, I was able to spend tremendous amount of time with the group of local volunteers who came to learn about mosaic.

The project was such an initial success that the Funder offered me three additional grants to continue complete the work and elaborate on more challenging techniques and subject matter. I created a multi-year plan which outlined methods for expanding arts into an industry through education, outreach and access. To demonstrate the impact of such a plan, I brought two of my students to Philadelphia to visit the public art and arts organizations that informed my own development. Philadelphia is an arts and cultural hub for its successful demonstration of how grass roots arts initiatives can transform societies and even spawn economic development. We decided to implement a similar model in Zacatlan. 

The 900ft. length mural received a lot of national publicity in Mexico, including travel channel segments, car commercials, national tourism advertisements, church blessings and even political campaign advertising!  Since the first workshop there in 2014, the town has seen a significant increase in the value of real estate surrounding the mural and a 500% increase tourism in just three years! This in turn created more jobs, more attractions, and even led to a streets department renovation project to better facilitate the growing number of visitors arriving to see the art. All of my students are now successful artists in their own right and have continued the mosaic journey, paying it forward to new students of their own.  It is incredibly rewarding to see this evolution. 

 Since returning to the US, I have a studio practice in the East Falls neighborhood of Philadelphia on the beautiful banks of the Schuylkill River. I host workshops, cultural events, and lead arts-based travel retreats.  

Please contact me  if you are interested in a tile project, educational program, or travel tour.