125th St. Harlem Mural Painting Reflections
Updated: Oct 21, 2021
Uptown Grand Central commissioned the Grand Scale Mural Project in June 2021, which invited the artists of Harlem and its neighbors to paint murals on the E 125th St. corridor. This is the neighborhood of Concourse House curator, Jess Rolls, who invited Concourse House mother-artists, including F. Thorburn and Manhattan College research scholar, Isabelle Gutierrez, to help paint her mural and to learn all about the process of mural painting.
Photo Credit: Isabelle Gutierrez (2021)
I previously have never painted a mural before. Going into it, I thought that it would not be very different from other kinds of painting projects. However, it turned out to be something completely new to me. On this day, I was introduced to the culture of mural painting. Mural artists appeared very confident in their work environment, despite it being very public and very large.
With mural painting, passersby are able to observe the artist’s process from beginning to end. An artist must not be afraid to admit openly that they sometimes can change their minds and make mistakes. As an artist, my dexterity becomes extremely awkward in front of an audience, so I learned well from observing the artists painting with ease. I admired Jess for being easy-going, experimental, welcoming of collaboration, and yet determined to create a mural which she liked.
It can be a challenge to think with a canvas larger than one's own body. An artist has to step back to have a better perspective of the canvas. I wondered, how would one utilize this space? Some artists painted a large idea. Some painted many smaller ideas. Such a large space allows for the art to be communicated from across the street.
To me, the most important part of mural painting is creating art which is a part of the community. Public art makes art a part of everyone’s everyday life, and influences the culture of the neighborhood. The area in which the project took place faces many social issues, such as homelessness. While it is not a solution, it will brighten up the area for the neighborhood residents and it will bring attention to the community from beyond. This project proves the talent of artists in the northern parts of NYC and announces that they are deserving of funding of the arts. All together, the murals inspire the community and announce to the world who the people of Harlem are.
I had the honor of helping Jess Rolls paint a mural in her neighborhood in Harlem. Many artists were invited to paint murals which wrapped an entire block. When Mrs. Jess told me of the three flowers that she wanted to paint, it resonated with me. These were some of the flowers which she saw each day during her commutes between work and home during the pandemic. I admired her sentiment of the liminal space between home and work, and I felt that these flowers have allowed me to slow down and reflect as well.
Back in my hometown, I would drive a golf cart around my mother’s neighborhood with my son, Oliver. There is a dirt road that goes along the woods and down to a yard in which one of our neighbors keeps a big blue dump truck. We went in loops around that tiny neighborhood for hours sometimes, just to go along the dirt road and stop at the truck. He loved to marvel at the truck just as much as he’d wonder of the woods. He preferred nobody to make a sound, except for when he felt the need to mention how the truck’s grill looked like a nose, and how it’s windshields corresponded to eyes.
One day, just before turning into the yard, we saw a single sunflower growing in the ditch at the edge of the woods. I figured that a neighbor had planted it, because we hadn’t seen it before, and there’s no way a sunflower could spring up by itself under the shadows of the forest. During our golf cart rides over the next couple of days, it appeared to gradually whither. By the third day, I was sure that it was in need of saving. I pulled it out with its roots and Oliver held it while we drove it to my mother’s garden. Together, we planted it in it’s own private plot at the side of the porch, where it’d get the most sunlight. Oliver took it upon himself to go fetch the watering pail and fill it up. He walked from the faucet and across the yard with great confidence. He watered the sunflower and offered it some of his favorite sourdough bread, too.
The next morning, a squirrel came over and took the head clean off of that sunflower. I wasn’t too upset. It felt sentimental to see that, really. It reminded me of a feeling that I had as a kid which I still can’t accurately name. Nonetheless, I was happy that my son and I had that rescue mission together. I was happy that we worked in the dirt together and that he felt just as proud as I’d ever hope he’d feel about it. I am creative, but my ultimate goal has always been to have a farm and to share the pleasure of working with the earth with my son. I got a hearty taste of that during that adventure. Nature ran its course by sending the squirrel to swiftly reap our work, and it was like a bittersweet icing on the cake.
Sunflower in the Ditch, Photo Credit: F. Thorburn (August 2020)
Oliver Nursing a Sunflower, Photo Credit: F. Thorburn (August 2020)
The first photo that I ever took with a professional camera was of a moon flower in my front yard. I was having tea on the porch as I used to every morning in my teens. It’s a habit which my son inherited as well; a decade later, you’d find him having breakfast on that same porch. The porch faced eastward toward the rising sun. I looked down and saw the golden light of dawn hitting the garden in such a way that the flowers appeared to have a creamy beige glow. I went and got the camera, and I zoomed in on one flower so that there was nothing but the white of the petals within the frame. What came out was a smooth landscape of silk hills. The tone was slightly sepia, but I didn’t apply any filters. I took more photos of flowers that summer, and I spoke of becoming a videographer for nature documentaries. I was young, so at some point, my parents took the camera away from me. That was the last time that I thought of my potential as a photographer. I nearly forgot about the photo until the subject of moon flowers was brought up during the mural project. I can’t seem to find the photograph, but I’ll be searching for it during my next trip to my hometown.
Several years afterward, the moonflower shrub was moved to a more spacious plot in the back yard. The sun doesn’t hit it the same there, but it flourishes. I was living elsewhere with my son’s father for a few years, and when I came back, I had a completely different relationship with the flower. We were both so different. We were both larger and sturdier, but also more withered. I felt like we had both forgotten who we were, me and that moonflower.
I came back to that moonflower now well-educated in mythologies and folk remedies. I no longer looked at the moonflower the same; I now saw it as a symbol influenced by the culture of my studies. For me, moonflowers represent discoveries found in quiet insanity. They’re not for the faint of heart. They’re for those who learn to embrace the night in order to bloom alone in the dark.
At the time, I needed that symbol. I called on her in my craft, and she aided my reclamation and she pushed me to do the necessary yet seemingly impossible. But now, I contemplate the relationship that we had before those few years of literature and escapism. It was more personal; there were less obstacles of excess knowledge between us. I hope to be able to slow down and sort my thoughts in a way that will allow me to relate to the earth in that way again. Having been reminded of it, I think that I can.
Moonflower, Phot Credit: F. Thorburn (July 2020)
Roses remind me of catharsis. They have a floral scent which is also at once musky and spicy, perfect for inspiring a cathartic trance. I have a perfume called Ameline by Phlur, which is a sharp and smoky rose fragrance. About a year after my son’s father died, I felt like I wasn’t progressing from my grief efficiently enough. But one morning, I woke up and found myself wearing all black. I sat at the edge of the bed and felt something welling up inside of me. I sprayed my new perfume to try to wake myself up. I looked over to find a poetry book which belonged to my youngest sister. It was 2 Fish by Jhene Aiko. I opened it to a random page and found lots of notes which she wrote to her boyfriend. I think they related to the poems which they bookmarked, but I only skimmed them as if to avoid embarrassing her. I suddenly came across a poem about someone whom the author had recently lost. I didn’t expect myself to be affected by it, but it provoked me to cry and write.
At first, I wrote literally: “I was doing XYZ when it happened . . .” Then, I wrote of rage and disgust. I wrote of bargaining and sorrow. And then, I wrote of forgiveness and love. It was like dust settling after the Big Bang. I understood everything now that it was all out in front of me. This is how my heart and mind work. I let the truth and all of the feelings burst and then I can turn it into a song, like how an ecosystem forms after a volcano erupts. All I needed was some inspiration which my particular heart would respond to. I had to break down and purge all of the uglier feelings first in order to find myself writing about harmony.
The process was natural and fluid. I associate roses with death and strife, our spirit’s separating forces, just as much as love and lust, our spirit’s unifying forces. Goddesses of love will strip us to our bare needs by sending us on impossible quests and convincing us of our doom. The Ancient Greeks believed that the soul is purified through such trials. Aphrodite did it to Psyche, who eventually surrendered to a death-like sleep. But then, Eros swooped in and saved her. I think the lesson of the latter half of the story is that the soul cannot exist without love. Food and water may seem like our bare needs, but we need love to drive us to chew and swallow.
A Rose in the Winter, Photo Credit: F. Thorburn (December 2020)