Tue, Feb 7, 2012
A gigantic blue rat with a menacing look, a vibrant yellow baby holding onto to a cigarette, a background of agonized skull heads and ill-looking subjects—these may not be the most pleasant of sights, but they certainly capture the attention of passers-by at Berry and South 4th street in Brooklyn.
The Ashes to Ashes mural painting on the wall of a south Williamsburg side street was produced in 2000 by Joe Matunis, a 53-year-old artist and a teacher at the El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice. At the end of each school year, Matunis gathers a group of his students and sets out to “redecorate” the “bleak” walls of Williamsburg, with art focused on the designated theme for that school year. He and his students have produced more than 10 murals in Williamsburg over the last decade, all addressing social issues that range from smoking, to abortion and asthma.
The school, on 250 Hopper Street, was created in 1993 by the chancellor at the time, José Fernandez, with the help of a former ballerina, Frances Lucerna. The idea was to combat the problems that come with very large high schools, and to motivate students to participate in their community. The school’s average student body is 500 students, and teachers point out that El Puente boasts an impressive 90 percent graduation rate.
El Puente takes a rounded approach to education, thanks to a syllabus partially created by Matunis, who has been a teacher there for more than 18 years. “We take a yearly project and work on it in every subject. We explore the same theme in the arts, investigative, and science classes,” he explains. “The advantage is that it allows our students to become immersed in the subject.”
“Some of our murals are really aggressive,” Matunis explains. “We work on topics that are socially important, like sweatshops and smoking. But the most important part of our murals is actually the process”. The students, he explains, leave pieces of themselves in every mural.
“I remember one student, Stephanie Robles, She wasn’t the best painter or artist in the group but she was a great organizer and it was really powerful to watch her grow from this shy, unsure ninth grader to someone who was speaking in public,” he said. “She is part of the police force now and that makes me very proud… It is exactly what we want to have happen here.”
“When we see the things our kids go through, you realize how strong and resilient, but also how hard life is. Some of them are single parents, have parents in incarceration, live in homeless shelters. But they are all so funny and smart, every one of them.”
On the corner of South 4th street and Hewes, an asthma-themed mural that Robles helped to create in 1999 is the backdrop to the Southside Community Garden. Layered with bright colors and billows of dark polluted smoke, Living With Asthma recreates the theme of the evils of smoke, this time both in cigarettes and in the high levels of pollution in the community. “Toxic emissions in Williamsburg are 60 times greater than the US average,” it reads.
Ashley Davis, passing by on the street on her way to work, says she is too busy to absorb the meaning of the mural. But for others, such as Steven Tavares, the owner of the Williamsburg Deli across the street, the mural does not go unnoticed. Tavares has seen the asthma mural everyday for the past two and a half years. “I’ll be honest: it’s easy to start and hard to quit” smoking, he says. “When I see television ads and murals like that it makes me feel very guilty. I haven’t been able to stop, but I have cut down. I smoke half a cigarette at a time instead of one now.”
“As a community artist you do want to reach out to your community,” Matunis stresses. But, after 10 years, the artist claims to have learned a more important lesson from working with students. “The funny thing is that I don’t really think that there is a lot of internal analysis going on when people see our murals” Matunis admits. “I remember when we created the smoking mural, we kind of expected people to be disgusted by the images they saw but instead, people would pass by and many of them would actually stop, look at the mural and take out a cigarette. The power of nicotine is just so strong that even our images reminded them to smoke.”
Where does one draw the line between vandalism and community art? “That’s an easy one,” the artist responds. “Vandalism is about scribbling on a wall. Community art is all about nurturing the community.”
Matunis’s love affair with public art began a long time ago. As a young graduate student at the Art Institute in Chicago, Matunis studied studio art and maintained his own studio where he catered for corporate clients and galleries. After spending a semester in Scotland at a public art program however, Matunis decided that it was time for a career change and abandoned the corporate “wine and cheese” art scene. “Cities in the 1980s were a big playground,” the artist says with a smile, “before gentrification you could out at night and paint on abandoned buildings and construction sites. If you wanted to make art there you could just go out and do it because no one owned the buildings.”
Inspired by the whiff of “revolution in the world of street art,” Matunis began and completed his first piece of public art in the summer of 1987. “I would go out painting at night,” he says. “It wasn’t legal, but I started painting earlier and earlier and after a while just started painting in the day time. That was when I fell in love with public art.”
“People don’t realize what you can achieve this through the arts,” Matunis says. “I try to motivate everyone to move onto college and follow their talents. But some of our kids have never even left Brooklyn, they haven’t even seen Manhattan, so it isn’t easy for them. Some of them don’t make it. If there is anything I reproach myself about, it is not pushing some of them harder to go onto university.”
Sitting in the teacher student lounge on a Monday afternoon, Eric Acevedo, a senior, says he is confident that Matunis changed his career path. “The reason I ended up coming to El Puente was due to one of my poetry idols, named Lemon Andersen,” Acevedo explains. “During a lunch period in November or October in 2008, Joe asked me why I had come to the academy; I told him that I wanted to meet Lemon Anderson and Joe invited me to visit Andersen at a reading with him. I was able to attend the show and speak to Lemon. Joe made my dream come true.”
Acevedo never participated in the mural paintings. “I was too busy writing poetry,” he says. Four years after meeting his idol, Acevedo has completed his first project, a book of poems, El Rice is Cooking that features more than two dozen poems. He hopes to get it published soon.