Community expressions

Share this:
February 19, 2007 // UPDATED 11:01 am - April 26, 2007
By: Michelle Bruch
Michelle Bruch

Collaborative mural project in Elliot Park provides artistic outlet for the homeless

“My teeth are whiter than that,” joked Patricia Bell, pointing to her painted smiling face on the wall of the drop-in center at Catholic Charities Branch III at 17th Street and Chicago in Elliot Park.

Bell is program director of the center, and she and the guests who face the mirror image of themselves on the wall have heavily supervised this mural since the painting of it began in September.

“We have this constant audience,” said Elissa Cedarleaf Dahl, the director of the mural project. “If they don’t like it, they let you know. … Murals take away a little bit of the mystery of art.”

Dahl said she was surprised by the energy and participation the mural created.

“We’ve had guys come and sit and play harmonica, tell jokes, bring in a boom box; it’s real social,” she said. “There were days I never even picked up a brush, but just talked to people in the audience about [the project].”

By Dahl’s count, 71 people have come to help paint so far. She decided to take on the project in her free time to enliven a room where she had worked running the food service five years ago. Dahl has painted 13 collaborative murals, most of them with children, and her thesis for the Minneapolis College of Art and Design states that collaborative artwork can help meet a community’s basic needs.

She said the mural’s importance for her was not the end product, but the people who would paint it with her.

Dahl met artists experiencing homelessness who carry enormous sketchbooks with them because the artwork defines them. She met a man who just left jail and walked in a bit tipsy, but he spent three hours completely engrossed in painting and said he had not been this happy in a long time.

Tony Don Carlos, who was painting birds on a recent afternoon, said he started painting during the last couple of years, and he has come to paint with Dahl every single time she has come in on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.

Al Griep worked on the other side of the mural, painting a brown background. He has come to help paint every week for the past month.He took up art while in prison, and moved to Minneapolis from Madison, Wis. “In prison, people wanted cards,” he said. He created artwork for the cards, charging $6-$7 apiece.

Peggy Chambers said she has come to Catholic Charities for about seven years, and she has experienced homelessness for the past nine years. She recently moved into the Drake but continues to visit Catholic Charities. She said she likes the new mural.

“Different cultures come in and out, and they put a little bit of everything in there,” she said.

Dahl spent three weeks with the guests of Catholic Charities, brainstorming scenes to paint. Drop-in guests of the center said they wanted something real they could relate to, so they chose to represent their daily routines of drinking coffee together and eating their typical meal of soup and a sandwich. They also chose to feature real people in the mural, and Dahl took pictures of the guests who wanted to become part of the painting.

“My friends meet up here. This is where I come and get my rest,” said Jeff Guyton, who helped generate the idea for the mural’s content. Guyton works in Lakeville and sleeps at Our Savior. He moved here from Pittsburgh and has come to Catholic Charities for three years now. “It’s a place for people to sit down and get something to eat,” he said.

The mural, which is scheduled to be unveiled on March 8 from 2-5 p.m., is a modern take on Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper.”

“It made sense because here we are in a Catholic institution, meeting basic needs,” Dahl said. “But no one there is the Jesus figure. There is no hierarchy, it’s just the people there. You see the good in everybody, and it’s a round table.”

The windows in the background are also meant to reference the da Vinci painting. In this version, the four seasons drawn outside represent the wide-ranging experiences the guests face outside the building.

Three weeks from the finish date, the mural’s finishing touches included the coloring on Moe’s plaid shirt, portions of the sky, and a smaller nose and whiter teeth for Patricia.

“This is what the kingdom looks like,” Bell said.