“Add to Our Wall” – Lessons from an Interactive Mural Project

This year we were honored to participate in the 5th Annual Newtown Arts Festival, organized by the Newtown Cultural Arts Commission. Though I’ve attended the festival other years as a guest, attending as a vendor was a very different experience. I didn’t get to wander the tents as much as I would have liked, but I did get to hear every performance in the music tent, which was much better than just catching a few.

First paint on a blank wallBut my favorite part of hosting a booth was observing the young artists who stopped by to “Add to Our Wall.” The Mural Envy booth put up a blank wall each day and invited kids of all ages to draw something on it, helping to create a unique, collaborative mural that was always a complete surprise.

At the beginning of the day, the wall would remain untouched for about 30-45 minutes. A blank wall can be an intimidating thing. Kids wondered out loud, “What should I draw on it?” and, “Is it okay to draw on it?” We are not usually encouraged to draw on walls.

Eventually a brave kid or two would start the process.

And a theme would develop organically, based on what the first few artists chose to draw. On Saturday of the Arts Festival, some Middle-School-aged girls drew word art with positive messages like “Love,” “Peace,” and “Be Kind.” Word art dominated the wall that day, with kids adding more affirmative text and also many names.

Saturday's interactive mural

Saturday’s wall – Positive messages and names dominated.

But on Sunday, some high school art students started the mural with beautifully painted faces. The contributors that followed spent much more time on their drawings, adding intricate flowers, birds and more faces until sets of eyes peered out from all corners of the wall. The result was a beautiful interactive mural, the best one of the two weekends of festivals we attended.

Sunday's interactive mural

Sunday’s wall – Carefully painted additions, with especially wonderful faces.

None of the “themes” that developed in each day’s mural were planned. We did not plant any artistic seeds or make any suggestions to the contributors.

I believe the evolution of common subject matter on our interactive mural is a testament to the way we are subtly influenced by our surroundings. If we surround ourselves and our communities with small positive messages–whether they be art, nature, inspiring architecture or kind words–we will see the world differently than if we are surrounded by suspicion, fear and despair. This is why I love murals. They take a thing that literally surrounds us–a wall–and turn it into an encouragement.