New Kids on the Block

An innovative program run by the city of Boston employs a group of high school youth in creating public art and murals designed to cover graffiti and beautify the city

“The huge eyesore, the boarded-up, decaying building that no one cares about anymore. That’s what I’m looking for.” Heidi Schork, director of the Boston Youth Fund Mural Crew (BYFMC), loves blank, abandoned walls, which Boston neighborhoods have in abundance. The BYFMC began as a offshoot of the city summer jobs program, with the modest mandate of covering up graffiti on shop fronts in Roxbury. Twelve years and over one hundred murals later, the Crew has expanded into a full-year program combining the goals of urban renewal, after-school program and art school.

As part of the promotion of youth arts in this city, a joint exhibition of students’ work from the BYFMC and the Boston Center for the Arts Mentorship Program opens today at the Boston Center for the Arts. “Futures Begin” features the individual murals of sixteen student artists. They are all veterans of the larger summer program which, with the supervision of professional artists, produces colorful and sometimes stunning public art—the jazz-inspired panels on the decaying doorway of the “Blue Store” in Dudley Square and a sepia barbershop scene in Roslindale, among many others, often painted over grafittied or otherwise run-down walls.

Last week, students filtered in to the Boston Youth Fund’s Fenway area headquarters after school and hurried to finish their individual four-by- eight murals. The basement studio was calm as the students concentrated on their work, some putting on the final details, others still wondering how to fill large blank spaces. Four-year mural crew veteran Kerry Coleman, a junior at Catholic Memorial, was painting the tusks on Hannibal’s elephants crossing the Alps, completing his depiction of the Barbarian invaders. “This is pretty fun,” he commented.

The common theme of the sixteen murals, “Civilization,” has inspired a variety of responses—depictions of social ills, historical scenes, symbolistic allegories. Some students take advantage of the public exhibition to make a commentary on everyday life in Boston. Devon Guillery, a junior at West Roxbury High School, divided his mural with a street: on the right side are pristine white houses with doghouses and porches, and on the left, a boarded up housing project. In the foreground, two young men walk by gazing pensively out of the painting. “I decided to paint what I’ve seen,” he said. “I know both these worlds.”

Deborah Browder, a soft-spoken junior at the Boston Arts Academy, chose to depict civilization as a series of symbols emerging out of a pearly gray cloud: a city skyline with lightning, a blurry dove, a rose growing out of a dirty crack in a sidewalk. Her painting is extraordinarily evocative and sophisticated—especially the portrait of her family in the corner which almost looks like a photograph. “They don’t know that I’m painting them,” she smiled quietly. “It’s going to be a surprise for them on opening night.”

And then there are the artistic visions which never quite made it to the finish line. Supervisor Mari Jaye Blanchard pointed out a few panels propped up in the corner. “There’s a couple of them, I just really wonder about their lack of enthusiasm,” she sighed. The panels showed half-painted heads under fireman’s helmets, and large blocks of gray. Meaning to depict the collapse of the World Trade Center, the artists apparently lost interest in the project as the terrorist attack slipped down in the headlines.

The student artists at the BYFMC are city workers, paid for every hour painting or researching their projects. As part of the job, they are asked to take trips to the Museum of Fine Arts and research artists. “At first I was thought, what, research?” recalls Guillery. “I was like ‘oh man, back into the library,’ and I just got out of school! But then it made sense, and it really helped the mural.”

Rather than selecting crew members on the basis of past experience, Schork and her staff of five supervising artists look for students willing to try something new.

“Some come in with beautiful black portfolios full of paintings,” she said. “Some bring notebooks filled with doodles. And then there’s the kids with a folded up 8” by 11” paper with something that looks like they drew it in the subway on the way here. We accept all of them. Anyone who has the guts to come over here deserves an opportunity. For many of these kids it’s their first paid job and none of them have ever painted on a wall before. They come in quaking!”

The summer mural program demands a good deal of physical labor in addition to artistic skills. “Working out in the hot sun isn’t that much fun,” said Ariana Barr, a junior at Boston Latin. Guillery cringed about working high up on the scaffolding, saying he always preferred to be on the ground. Once, he recalled, his crew disturbed a nest of bees in a decaying wall and had to run for cover.

A self-described graduate of “beatnik schools,” Schork earned her bachelor’s degree in film studies from the Universidad Tecnológica de Monterrey, Mexico. After working for many years in the travel industry, she decided to plunge into public service and arts education. “I realized I was put on earth to be an artist, not to make money for some schmuck,” she said.

Sharp and to the point, Schork is used to talking with visitors; the combination of public art and urban youth allures policy researchers and journalists alike. Back in 1991, a photo of a mural crew at work in Dorchester made the front page of the Boston Globe. That particular project, only the second that Schork directed, used a geometric style of South African wall painting to incorporate the names of fifteen young men killed in gang violence. The result, Schork recalls, meant both positive attention for the muralists, almost entirely young women, and a meaningful piece of public art.

“I wasn’t out there to make art for the ages,” Schork says. “This really has nothing to do with creating great art, it’s really all about process with the kids. And if they want to sit on the curb for hours looking at books of Egyptian art, hey, that’s cool with me.”

The group’s second mural, the Rodney King story told in hieroglyphics, provoked citywide controversy when Boston police objected to the depiction of the beating. As a compromise, the mural crew agreed to paint a second mural depicting better relations between officers and the community.

For Schork, the incident represents the highly politicized nature of mural painting. Expectations of public art sometimes cloud the intent behind a particular project. When one group painted a version of John Singleton Copley’s “Watson and the Shark” on the side of a fish market, many people assumed they had chosen the painting because it features an African-American. “That wasn’t the reason though; we just thought it would be ironic to have a picture of a fish eating a person on the side of a fish market,” Schork said.

Part of the student’s education in the Mural Crew, Schork explains, is learning to deal with criticism from the public. Especially when a mural is still in the outlining stages, reactions from passersby range from praise to indifference to annoyance. There is also the danger of graffiti: While most finished murals are left alone, unfinished ones are often vandalized. Browder explains that her group ran out of time last summer and had to leave their mural in Fields Corner, Dorchester incomplete. Soon after, their work—including her portraits of fellow students and community members—was covered in graffiti.