Cure For That Empty Feeling: Paint
One light that keeps shining during this long season of dark news is the role art is playing in helping everyone stay sane and hopeful. You’ve probably seen those videos of unemployed musicians doing jazz sets on their rooftops. Or that clip of the locked-down dancer in Spain who makes taking out the garbage a weekly dance recital—to “Bravos!” from the surrounding balconies.
“Artists have it in their blood to create art regardless of the situation,” Meredith Winner says.
Meredith is the creator with Shannon Riley of a similar art intervention in San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland: Paint the Void. “It was a response to the boarded up businesses that we started to see pop up all over the Bay Area,” she says. “Seeing those storefronts was really jarring and kind of brought home how apocalyptic this whole situation is.” Not willing to give in to the apocalypse, Meredith and Shannon began recruiting artists to paint murals on those boarded up storefronts. They were surprised at how quickly their idea took off.
“We started this before we had any funding, and we initially had artists who were saying, ‘Yes, I’ll do this for free. No, I don’t need any money. Just tell me how to get there.’ Of course we didn’t want artists working for free.” Partnering with Inga Bard at Art for Civil Discourse, a non-profit with fundraising expertise, they quickly reached their goal of $10 thousand and almost as quickly doubled it. “We initially set out to do 15 murals with $10k and then doubled it to 50 murals with $25k and will surpass that,” Meredith says. With 51 murals already up and 15 more in the works at this writing the project is on track to turn shuttered business districts into temporary art galleries.
“We of course are mindful of the stay-in-place restrictions,” Meredith says. “We’re matching the artist and their neighborhood. So they’re painting outside—getting there either by walking or with their own vehicle. We’re avoiding using public transit. Some artists are also painting boards in their backyards or canvas in their yards and then wheatpasting them to the boards.”
Businesses wishing to have their boarded storefronts painted can fill out an intake form on Paint the Void’s website. There’s a form as well for artists. Meredith says over 450 have registered so far. “It’s pretty incredible to know that there is such a wealth of amazing artists still living and working in the Bay Area. We’ve been screening the forms to see who would be a really good fit.”
This kind of matchmaking between artists and businesses is something Meredith and Shannon do even when the world isn’t paralyzed. They are the founders of Building 180, an arts consulting firm that curates and directs corporate art installations, manages art production and performs a range of services for artists and people who want to engage them. “Our business is kind of challenging to say the least right now, so we’ve been focusing on this project full time. I’m grateful to have the ability to use my skill set to give back to the city.”
Even before Paint the Void, Building 180’s projects leaned toward social awareness and community outreach. Their portfolio reveals a remarkable instinct for rhyming aesthetic impact with civic context. Ethyl the Big Blue Whale, for example, a sculpture by Joel Dean Stockdill and Yustina Salnikova, conjured an 82-foot long leviathan from recycled plastic milk jugs and detergent bottles (dramatizing how a whale’s weight of this stuff goes into the ocean every nine minutes). Charon, Peter Hudson’s giant wheel of skeletons for Burning Man in 2017, put the mythic boatman of Hades on a desert stage in a macabre display of mayhem’s constancy that now seems all too prophetic.
Like those projects, the storefront murals exist on one level as striking visual objects and on another as expressions of their moment in history. While Paint the Void discourages overt political content—“People don’t want it anyway,” Meredith says—the uplifting spirit of the effort is itself one of the touchstones of our age of angst. Artist Nora Bruhn’s lush floral studies and Mark Harris’s portrait of a health worker with a halo behind her head could hardly be less alike, but both speak to the elevation of composure as a quality to be valued in this time.
“I think it’s a sign of the times that the art that’s come out of this situation is what is needed. People need some hope. People need to feel inspired and safe in their city. Artists are hit incredibly hard in a financial crisis, but they’re still gung ho about wanting to create work and wanting to be out there and showing what they can do.”
Indeed Paint the Void may be seen as a realization of the sentiment expressed by photo-muralist JR in a quote featured on Building 180’s website: “Art is not supposed to change the world, but to change perceptions. Art can change the way we see the world.”
“It’s also changing how we see each other,” Meredith adds. “I think it’s a sign of the times that the art that’s come out of this situation is what is needed. People need some hope. People need to feel inspired and safe in their city. Artists are hit incredibly hard in a financial crisis, but they’re still gung ho about wanting to create work and wanting to be out there and showing what they can do.” This virus has cancelled arts festivals, closed galleries, scrubbed planned shows and put artists’ livelihoods (and lives) in peril, but as Meredith is quick to point out, “It hasn’t stopped them.”
Photographer: Lisa Vortman