He paints the town red ... green & blue

Muralist Alex Cook teams up with communities to transform city landscapes

Alex Cook spends most of his time wandering the streets of Boston searching for blank walls. But he's not scoping them out to scribble graffiti.

Instead, the artist wants to paint murals. Lots of them.

"It's important to put images of peace right in the most frenetic areas in our cities," Mr. Cook says. "If only for a moment, a mural has the power to uplift someone...."

The artist has been slapping paint onto brick and mortar for six years. During that time, he has created more than 30 murals in five states. Some are whimsical; others are political or philosophical.

Cook recently worked with teenagers in a Boston neighborhood on a mural about the Cape Verdean experience. The teens, part of the Cape Verdean Community Task Force, hope the images will break stereotypes. "You only hear of Cape Verdeans killing each other and shooting," says 16-year-old Patricia Pires, standing on a ladder holding a can of green paint. "This shows families and people working together, and stuff Cape Verdeans really do."

On the rough-hewn wall, Cook created a massive "coloring book" of families going to church, making music, and fishing. The teens filled in the images with house paint.

The mural is one example of an artist and community joining up to transform a run-down area into a colorful oasis. This type of passionate activism can also be seen in the famous Chicano Park murals in the Barrio Logan neighborhood of San Diego. Philadelphia's mural-arts program is credited for helping to improve the look and morale of run-down neighborhoods and giving them an economic boost.

"I remember when parts of Philadelphia were plagued with graffiti and trash and drug dealers on corners, and some of these pockets have become an oasis in the city," says Jane Golden, director of the nearly 20-year-old Mural Arts Program in Philadelphia."[A mural] helps raise the consciousness level of what the neighborhood could be. People feel ... a deep sense of ownership. It's big, it's bold, it's beautiful ... it [gives] people a voice."

But can splashing paint on a wall really solve economic problems? "Murals aren't a silver bullet, but they do create opportunities to diversify a town and economy more," says Bill Drennen, co-chair of the mural symposium to be held this weekend in Lindsay, Calif. He credits the 20 murals in Lindsay, known for its citrus and olive industry, for helping them get out of an economic slump in the 1990s. "The murals were a way to promote ourselves as a place to come and enjoy art."

Murals have been around since the beginning of time, says historian Jim Prigoff. He points to cave paintings and Michelangelo's famous work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling as examples. But it wasn't until the stormy political climate of the 1960s and '70s that artists and activists realized the power of the paint. In Chicago, the Wall of Respect and the Wall of Truth showcased black pride. In the late '60s in California, artists and community activists joined together to paint murals to revive blighted areas.

But from a fine-arts perspective, murals may not get the respect they deserve, Cook says. "Murals are an art form which struggles to be recognized as a fine art, which is sad because there are great muralists like Diego Rivera and other Mexican muralists. A lot of murals end up being looked upon as a lesser quality."

Other critics see murals as a hallmark of a poor neighborhood, Ms. Golden says. There is "a small percentage of people who feel that murals are a tool of urban blight.... My response is the opposite. It's actually a deterrent of graffiti."

To raise money for his murals, Cook turns to the communities. After the owner of a Boston-area bread company agreed to let him paint a mural on his 18-by-60 foot wall, Cook launched a fundraising campaign with local activists and the company.

He was given an initial donation of $1,500 from community groups. Then he created $2 greeting cards featuring the image of the mural - a wilderness scene with kids playing in the forest - and raised $800 selling them through local businesses. As he painted, he also kept a donation bucket in the street and gathered hundreds of dollars from passers-by.

Though the bread company owner was eager to work with Cook, not everyone is amenable to his murals. "A lot of times when I ask to paint a mural, people say 'no' because they just don't want to be bothered," says Cook. "A person has to be open to the idea...."

But getting turned down hasn't affected his dedication. "One can make the most beautiful picture in the world," he says, "but if no one sees it, or if no one hears about it, it can't do its job."

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