Today’s piece is written by new member Alex Cook of You Are Loved.
I always bristled at the notion of art being considered “enrichment”. It seemed to imply that art was something extra – not one of the indispensable necessities. Actually, art reaches places in us that nothing else can. In a world where children are bullying and being bullied, where depression and suicide are at the forefront of experience and conversation, we must recognize art as the powerful, life-saving tool it is.
In 2013 I was working on mural at an elementary school in New Orleans, LA. The principal, who visibly adored her students and was going to bat for them day in and day out, told me that she was hoping this mural would help the kids feel safe and loved. A lot of them, between home and school, didn’t. “How can they be expected to learn if they don’t feel safe?” she asked.
I felt the deep gravity of her hope and it set me to work thinking of how this mural could effectively express a feeling of love that these children would actually feel. I considered lots of different images and ideas, trying to suggest the value, importance, and preciousness of these kids. I hemmed and hawed. As I stood there in the hallway of that school, a new thought broke through in my thoughts –WHY DO WE HAVE TO BE SUBTLE ABOUT THIS? It’s the most important thing in the world. I realized I had been trying to tell these children that they were loved and good and precious and all the zillions of other things we want our children to feel, without actually saying it. Why didn’t I just write it out, on the wall, so it could be there for years and years?
I did. Right there on the wall I wrote out:
YOU ARE LOVED
YOU ARE IMPORTANT
YOU ARE SPECIAL
YOU ARE NEEDED
YOU ARE A THINKER
YOU CAN DO IT
It felt wonderful! And, it felt like I was breaking some kind of unwritten rule. I felt wildly free, simply writing out these things that I know are true. But it was somehow daring – more intimate and close to the real heart than all the “official” school things. Then, as if on cue, just after I finished the last stroke of the words, a cacophonous band of 4th grade girls tumbled through a nearby door. Immediately they, as one body, began to read the words. In a beautiful unison the messages on the wall came out of the mouths of these 10 or 15 girls. The very thoughts I was so longing to be in the hearts and minds of these children were now being spoken from their lips not 10 seconds after they were painted.
Instantly I began to imagine the children year after year, 10, 20 years in the future, reading these words, tumbling them around in their thoughts and feelings. Some of them, perhaps would already feel it and know it. Others might feel just the opposite, but in these words would find a voice supporting their innate goodness, helping them to recognize it.
Upon my return home from that project that experience remained in my thoughts. The need to feel loved is so much broader than those children at that one school in New Orleans. That need is everywhere, in everyone. I began to imagine murals 15 feet tall, declaring YOU ARE LOVED, 40 feet long on a public city block. They would tower over the people passing by, the intimacy and sheer size of the words breaking through the unwritten rule that we don’t mention such things.
This was the beginning of the YOU ARE LOVED mural project. Since then I have worked with schools, worship communities, a prison, and lots more – 15 murals in 5 states and 2 countries – creating murals with a voice to counter the negativity we encounter everywhere. Students and community members are invited to help paint. They have a blast doing something totally unfamiliar (painting on the walls!) and participating in something beautiful and positive that lasts for years. The response has been overwhelmingly good – as if these murals are declaring the very thing that so many people know is true, but never thought to say out loud.
To seal the deal, last winter I received an email from a man who let me know that in a dark moment, one of these murals spoke directly to him and helped him decide not to end his life. Again I consider the power and deep responsibility of art – it saves lives.
Do you know a school or community that would benefit from a mural like this? I’m sure you do! Please visit www.youarelovedmurals.com. The process is simple, the costs are on a sliding scale, and the benefit is incalculable.