Alex Cook paints walls, not canvas, with a message of hope and love
The Boston-based artist creates outdoor murals across the US and abroad. 'Art has the potential to save someone’s life,' he says. 'Why be subtle about it?'
Behind a low, unobtrusive brick building on Boston’s Lenox Street is a lush, green forest. Brown and silver-gray trees cover the building’s wall, their leafy canopies blocking the sky. Sun-dappled stones sit on tangles of grass. A boy perches on the largest rock, gazing at a distant meadow.
On the wall’s lower left corner, the word “Love” appears in bright green; opposite is the word in Spanish, “Amor,” in vibrant red.
The forest is a mural, and even in the dead of winter the 18-by-85-foot painting gives a sense of beauty, warmth, and life – qualities that artist Alex Cook tries to convey in all his work.
“Art was always a deeply spiritual thing, the most real thing in my life,” Mr. Cook says. “You want to share that kind of feeling.”
That desire to share and send a message is what drives Cook to paint as much on walls as on canvas. Galleries put barriers between the art and the public, he says, but murals are like billboards – they bring no such divide.
“With them, I can influence the world,” he says.
An artist for most of his life, Cook has painted on walls all over the United States and has even packed his brushes to travel to and paint in Kenya, Nigeria, and most recently Panajachel, Guatemala. He is also a musician, having performed for churches and communities across the country for about two decades.
Cook’s songs, like his murals, reflect a message of hope, love, and beauty. His interest in music and art started around the same time, when he was a teenager. The two are simply different ways of arriving at the same goal, he says.
“They come from the same place. [They are] expressions of the same thing,” Cook says. That thing, he adds, is a “huge desire to be honest” and to give voice or imagery to beauty in a truthful way.
Cook has half a dozen albums to his name, but lately, he says, his focus is more on his visual art. His latest enterprise takes him into his native Boston, and beyond it, as he distills his passion for beauty and inspiring others into a multi-mural project he calls “You Are Loved.”
People need to be reminded that someone cares, that they are special, he says. Each mural in the project thus contains at least one of five simple statements: “You are important,” “You are needed,” “You are beautiful,” “You can do it,” and, of course, “You are loved.”
“Art has the potential to save someone’s life,” he says. “Why be subtle about it?”
The project began in the fall of 2013 when Cook was performing in New Orleans. There he met Amy Hoyle, then a principal at a local elementary school. Ms. Hoyle was looking for new ways to engage her students and invited Cook to paint a mural on campus, based on the motto of Woodland West Elementary School: “Stay curious.”
Cook delivered, painting two huge faces side by side in a strange, beautiful picture that prompted more questions than answers.
But he did more than that. Touched by the students, many of whom were poor and had difficult home lives, Cook decided to paint something that would remind them every day of how special they were. The result was a hallway filled with a palette of colors and messages telling all who passed by that they were beautiful, needed, important, and loved. “It’s like walking through a warm hug,” Hoyle says.
Cook left New Orleans inspired. He has since traveled as far as California and New Mexico to paint for schools, churches, and communities in the name of “You Are Loved.”
In December, Cook worked with the Survivor Theatre Project, a Boston-based women’s group that helps survivors of sexual violence rediscover their voices through performance. There he met people as passionate as he is about art’s role in healing and inspiring people.
Together with Cook, and using his designs, Survivor Theatre organizers and artists painted colorful murals that illustrated their message of love and understanding.
“The spiritual quality of Alex’s work made me reach out to him,” says Karuna O’Donnell, cofounder and touring company manager for Survivor Theatre, herself an artist.
But what made the project stand out, Ms. O’Donnell says, was the experience of creating something together, of sharing space and ideas in a “quiet, connected way.”
“That touches your heart in an authentic way,” she adds.
For Cook, that collaborative process is “as important as putting the paint on the wall.”
As a result, he’s always on the lookout for new partners and ways to get his message seen and heard: He is currently in talks with Matthew Hoffman, whose Chicago company sells stickers and stamps proclaiming “You are beautiful,” in hopes of sharing their common message farther and louder.
He also just returned from Panajachel, Guatemala, where he collaborated with a school to create the first “You Are Loved” murals outside the US.
“There’s a feeling of health, safety, joy that I want people to feel” when they look at these murals, Cook says. “I hope that this project could have that effect.”
• To see images of Cook’s murals, visit www.youarelovedmurals.com.