Young people explore their values through Art

These Are Our Values

By Hugh Rose

A mural has a very special quality that marks it out from any other form of image; it physically occupies the community and the daily lives of its members. This makes it a powerful tool that can be used to embody the values and consolidate the identity of a community.

When I was invited by the GAC and Youth Commission to collaborate with 10 young people to create a mural on the Ozouets site as part of their exploration of restorative practices and the arts.

The first step of the process was to look at some images of various types of graffiti, street art and muralism. The young people were very vocal and articulate about their preferences, some of which were very surprising. For example, I had included several images of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work, which they roundly agreed were terrible. The young people were no less vocal in their opinions about the legality of some of the work, and discussions about the ownership of property, the legal definition of vandalism, and the impact of murals on the community abounded.

While they couldn’t agree on everything, there were a few things that everyone could agree on when discussing murals. That they had a powerful effect on the community in which they were placed. That the artist had a responsibility to produce something that contributed to this community, and that painting something on a wall that offends or goes against the general wishes of a community is wrong.

Paul Chambers, the Restorative Justice Development Officer then came and talked to the young people about values, what they are and how our values can impact others. This was a great opportunity for me to learn about the values of young people in Guernsey, and hopefully for them to explore how they fit into their community as they navigate into the confusing landscape of the adult world. As members of the local community, the young people were asked to choose a value that was important to them as a person. They chose:

Kindness, Impartiality, Honour, Challenge, Purpose, Joy, Flexibility and Individuality.

They were then asked to render their chosen value as a pattern, a shape, an animal, a person and a place. The resulting pile of drawings became the raw material from which I had one long night to fashion a mural design fit for the young people’s exacting standards, and that would portray their thoughtful expressions of positive values to the community.

The group seemed to find translating their value into an animal the easiest, and some of them chose the same animal to represent their value. Animals were also present in some of the other drawings they made, so I decided to base the design around all of the animals chosen by the group. A motif that was fairly ubiquitous in the drawings was a smiling face, and I judged this to be a good centrepiece for the mural. There were also several examples of bricks and building blocks, and I thought this motif would tie in beautifully with the theme of a community wall painting.

In this case, the mural is being painted onto wooden boards, and the final destination of these boards is dependent on community input, so I thought it would be wise to make sure that each board could be displayed on its own as well as part of a 5-board mural, just in case the boards had to be split up and hung separately. This was a big challenge in terms of composition, the most obvious solution being to place one strong compositional element on each board, with a background that tied them all together. I decided on four animals facing inwards towards a central, smiling face.

Here’s the sketch I prepared for the group. The text in the image are all placeholders; I wanted the group to discuss what text would be best to include in the final work.

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The moment of truth arrived the next afternoon when it came time to show the group the fruits of my efforts. I have to admit to being very nervous after hearing their brutal criticisms of Basquiat, but my twilight labours paid off, and the response from the group was very positive. We took some time to revisit the group’s drawings from the previous day, and identified all of the themes and values we had discussed in my sketch.

After printing out the sketches for the boards individually, I drew some reference lines to help scale the drawings accurately onto the boards. I sketched out the design in marker so that the young people could help paint the coloured areas. With a great effort from the group, we managed to get all of the coloured areas painted over the course of three sessions. Painting the wall with the group was a blast, and the discussions of values and community continued with the mural-in-progress as a focal point. All that was left was for me to outline the design with black markers.

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Here’s the finished mural.

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As an artist, one of the most common questions I am asked, particularly in the context of education, sounds something like “What is Art for?” or “What is the purpose of Art?” While I have a few well-used sound bites at my disposal to answer this question, this mural has done so in a beautifully pragmatic way. Learning how to help a community to express and discuss its values has been an amazing experience, and the potential for further projects in this vein are incredibly exciting.

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