NOTE: This post is to introduce you to the 17th episode of François Matarasso’s and my monthly podcast, “A Culture of Possibility.” It will be available starting 20 May 2022. You can find it and all episodes at Stitcher, iTunes, and wherever you get your podcasts, along with miaaw.net’s other podcasts by Owen Kelly, Sophie Hope, and many guests, focusing on cultural democracy and related topics. You can also listen on Soundcloud and find links to accompany the podcasts.
I’ve known Kansas-based muralist Dave Loewenstein for a couple of decades now. When I ask myself what’s at the heart of his work, the answer that pops up has to do with seeing things freshly, from a new perspective. So I was delighted when he began the interview by telling us about a recent mural, Tiempo de la Tierra, painted with assistants Missy McCoy and Ardys Ramberg on a wall of Cottin’s Hardware in downtown Lawrence, Kansas. (See some photos here.)
Dave explained that the aim was to illuminate the precarious situation of life on the planet. He was aware of how we may “take for granted the earth and the way it appears. Ever since I was a little kid, the image of the Earth was always presented to me in the same way with North America centered, the North Pole on top, Antarctica on the bottom and so forth—every globe and every map and every photograph. I knew in the back of my head that the Earth is not up or down or left or right when we see it from space. Researching, one of the first things I discovered was that this famous photograph we call the blue marble, this glorious photo of the Earth rising above the moon, when the photo was originally taken, the South was on the top and the North was on the bottom. I found out that before that photo was shared with the media and the public, it was reoriented so that the North would be on top.”
“This was like, ‘Okay, I figured out this mural.’ On this large wall, this 70-foot wall, we see the Earth dipping down from the top. So you see the curve of the Earth at the bottom. It’s based on a photograph from the space station from 2019, when there were multiple hurricanes out, and there was the trail of wildfire smoke going across North America. For folks who engaged with this mural, when they first see it, they’re disoriented because what we chose to do in presenting this image was put the north at the bottom of the image. You’re still looking at North America, and right in the middle of the mural is Kansas and Lawrence where we are. But you know, Florida is pointing up, and the Gulf of Mexico is at the top, Cuba is actually right at the very top of this image. I thought this would be an interesting way for folks to reorient themselves to the planet just a little bit. And it’s been really interesting to hear people’s reactions, a lot of folks just simply don’t recognize the image. It’s very clear when you turn it over. And this leads to other thoughts from me about things, images especially but ideas that we take for granted when if we simply looking at them from a different perspective, we get a whole new understanding.”
Dave grew up in Chicago and walked a long path through art school and many different jobs before finding his way to socially-engaged art, both murals and studio projects. “I came to Lawrence after going to undergraduate school at Grinnell College in a small town in Iowa. Then a brief stint in Indiana at Purdue University, which led me to being a farm apprentice in upstate New York. I learned a couple of things. One was farming was really hard, really hard, and my romanticizing of that as a possible vocation, I was going to put that on a shelf for a while. So I was going to go back to my art life, and didn’t have a lot of options. One of them was going to the University of Kansas and Lawrence for my MFA. When folks ask me, ‘you’re so rooted in Kansas and Lawrence, why do you love it so much?’ It was really by happenstance. The seed was planted, and the roots grew over time.” Check out Dave’s book, Kansas Murals: A Traveler’s Guide, to learn more about the place and its public art.
Dave also shared a smaller-scale project with us, his “Defunct Monuments” postcard series, depicting in turn a tank, a confederate general statue, and the Wall Street bull, all obscured by kudzu, a fast-growing invasive vine that covers whole swathes of the American South. Read here about its origins and how it inspired a guerilla knitting project to erase Confederate statues in Charlottesville, Virginia.
That story reminded François that “art keeps changing shape and a bit like the kudzu itself, it acquires new levels of meaning. Because of the war in Ukraine—particularly your images of the tank overgrown, and the monument overgrown—now echoes all the photographs you’ve seen of people pulling down Soviet-era statues in Ukraine and the destroyed tanks and so on. It’s the layers and layers of meaning that come with images that can begin seemingly quite straightforward, but as the world changes around them, so does the resonance change, which is most obvious in public art that’s in the streets. That will happen to some of the murals in the way that it’s happened to some of the Victorian statues or the Soviet statues. It highlights one of the things that’s most enriching and rewarding about art, which is that we keep making it up. We keep making up what we think of it. (Here’s a link to murals in Kyiv to illustrate that point.)
Tune in for a deep discussion of the changing conditions and meanings of muralism, which François described as “the mere act of making that work collectively in in a public space, a symbolic act, that becomes significant in the negotiation of democratic rights and debates about what is this place? Where is it going? Who owns it? What what is it for? In a way that that is naturally democratic. From there we went to people’s history and the Iⁿ ‘zhúje ‘waxóbe Project/Sacred Red Rock project, returning to the Kaw Nation what had been stolen from them nearly a hundred years ago. And there’s much more!
John Trudell, “Living in Reality.”