Q+A with Groundswell Artist Danielle McDonald

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How did you get involved with Groundswell?

I have been an arts educator for ten years now, working in schools, museums, through non-profit organizations in community centers, shelters, theaters, detention facilities, etc. I heard lots of positive news about Groundswell and the work they do through colleagues in my teaching artist community. I saw they were hiring, and I applied! I remember having a thoughtful conversation with the Program Director during the interview and feeling like this was going to be a good place for me to grow as a teacher and community artist. I am happy it worked out!

What kind of topics have you tackled with the murals you’ve worked on in the past?

That is an interesting question! Creating murals has enabled me to collaborate with a range of communities on many topics, mostly anchored in issues of social justice and harnessing this public art practice as an instrument for change. I led my first mural project in 2003 on a wall inside of a shelter with the residents there. We were tasked with the mission of livening up the space and celebrating family bonds that endure the struggles of transitional living and economic adversity. Since then, I have been blessed to work with many amazing organizations all around NYC, and together we have addressed such topics as housing justice, gentrification, the celebration and preservation of cultures in NYC’s shifting social and cultural landscape, injustices of mass incarceration, police brutality, and pro-immigration rights, to name a few.

What kind of impact have you noticed in the communities you’ve worked in once your murals have been up for a while?

I believe there are numerous layers of impact that transpire from a community mural, all linked to how people connect with the process of the mural’s creation or it’s presence in their visual landscape. Blank walls and heavy topics can be really intimidating, especially for people who have never created this kind of collaborative art before. The process of researching for a mural and designing a message for the artwork can really be transformative for the artists and the community members involved. Spaces are created in this practice that generate meaningful and necessary dialogue around real, and most often, complicated issues that are difficult to ordinarily have conversations about in many cases. Murals disrupt our ordinary visual experience, and touch those who are captured by it in a means that only experiencing a large painting can. It makes people feel something. It makes them stop, talk and reflect on issues from the perspectives often marginalized in society.

How did you decide to tackle catcalling / street harassment for Voices Her’d?

Street harassment as the topic for our mural evolved from many long conversations, and over time. At the beginning of the year, Groundswell brings artists and youth together to discuss critical issues challenging young men and women today. From this colloquy our artistic community determined an umbrella theme of Gender Violence for the young ladies of Voices Her’d to design a mural about. When our group commenced in July, we researched this topic through examining art, film, and news related to the theme of Gender Violence. We then made connections between what we were reviewing and our own personal experiences as women in Brooklyn. The problem and ubiquity of street harassment kept surfacing in the stories of the young ladies and it became apparent to our group that this is something we want to make public art about. There is ambiguity around what defines this issue and we believe this vagueness has led to the continuance of disrespectful and detrimental interactions on the street, as well as a dismissal of street harassment as a legitimate issue among many. We wanted to make a statement that a person’s body is not public space, and that every person, regardless of their gender, race, or sexual orientation deserves to walk the streets with dignity and safety.

“Respect is the Strongest Compliment” has a very distinctive look. Could you talk about your visual inspiration for this mural?

Yes! This was a lot of fun for us to design. An important goal of our artwork was to visually communicate the climate of fear created by street harassment, and to illustrate the action of it happening, so the message would be clear. Comic books, protest posters and artists working in a graphic style informed our design process. We reviewed feminist activist graphic art, from political posters to more contemporary works by artists such as the Guerrilla Girls, Barbra Kruger, Jenny Holzer, Ellen Gallagher and Maria Maria Atcha-Kutcher. We referenced Ms. Marvel and Priya Shakit comics to help build our graphic narrative, noting the ways in which these female superheroes break classic formulas of how women are represented in this genre. In accordance with this, our color palate is bold and vibrant. We steered away from muted or traditionally “feminine” colors to catch tan audience and to draw them into our work.

You finished this mural in Summer of 2015 – how has the community reacted since it’s been up?

In our last days of painting this mural, a young woman rode her bicycle onto the sidewalk where we were working. She got off the bike and started to thank us for the work we were doing. She had just been harassed earlier that afternoon and began to cry as she shared the story with us. The ladies of our group got up to give her a hug. This is a touching example of t supportive responses to the mural. Many times women would approach us and describe an incident of harassment they endured, or thank us for talking about this topic, because it is not validated often times to get angry or upset about cat-calling. Men would support us. We received a lot of positive feedback overall. However, not all of the reactions to the mural were rosy! The mural has been criticized for promoting a man-hating message. We understand as public artists the space between what we meant to convey with our work and how it is received by others. We added a declaration to our piece to make our concept clear to the viewers, we hope people take the time to read and understand the intent, but at the end of the day- we are happy conversations around street harassment are happening!

How do you find student participants for your murals?

This summer, the participants were recruited through Groundswell’s Youth Development department. They have a very thoughtful application process and bring in such creative and compassionate young minds.

How do you choose the neighborhoods where your murals will be painted?

This process varies from project to project. Often, community organizations will want to create a mural to bring public awareness to themes or issues they deal with in their work. Deciding upon the mural location then, becomes a collaborative process based on goals the organization and the artists set together as a team. Or sometimes an organization will know that they want to revitalize a wall on the outside or inside of their space, and they collaborate with artists to develop creative content based on the values and mission of their work. This summer, the wall we painted was given to Groundswell through Bogopa, Inc. They support the community work of Groundswell and offer spaces on the exteriors of their markets for murals that address social injustices.

Does the location of the mural influence you when choosing a topic?

Of course! The location of a mural is often the most integral part of researching and developing content for a design. There is a lot of responsibility in being an artist who works in the community, and learning about the circumstances and values of the spaces in which we work is paramount. Ideally, the goal is not to impose a message onto a locale, but to collaborate with the neighborhood to build art together.

What topics do you hope to tackle in 2016?

I am currently working with Groundswell youth again, and a number of Crown Heights community organizations to create a mural focusing on community relationships within the neighborhood, as well as the current impacts of gentrification. I am also writing a proposal for funding to continue to make public artworks around the topic of street harassment!