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We've never had to wash graffiti off a mural, which is just amazing. What happens is, the children in the neighborhood who build and created the mural have a sense of ownership. It becomes a part of that community, so the gang kids leave it alone. They look on it as art, too.
- Melissa Tatum, Houston Parks and Recreation Department

It's not hard to see the results of the partnership that the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, struck five years ago with the Houston Parks and Recreation Department. Almost half the 57 community centers in the city's parks now have big, bold murals on their outside walls, painted by neighborhood children under the tutelage of real artists.

They are big—at least 8' by 16' and some even larger - and they are colorful. A few, like the Alief Park mural in the style of Kandinsky, look almost too good, as if the artist left too little to the children's hands.

But most "look really haphazard, kind of crazy, kind of wild and you know that the children have been given more of a free rein," said the Parks Department's Melissa Tatum. "They are all different, colorful and gigantic, really big and easy to spot from the street. They are outdoor, public works of art."


"It is Life." A mural by the children of Cloverland Park and Anthony Thibodeux

Artist Anthony Thibodeaux, an assistant curator of twentieth-century art for the museum, helped two dozen children, ages six to 12, create a mural called "It Is Life" in the summer of 1997. It is an evocative, allegorical rendering of an ancient Egyptian boat like a model the children saw in the museum, with silhouetted rowers, stick figure children outside a church and school on shore, the sun, moon, stars, and an Egyptian eye and ankh. The names of African-American artists and leaders are displayed on a Cloverland banner, and the children's own signatures dance in the waves.

Thibodeaux mixed geometry in with his art instruction, having the children draw the oars set at precise 45-degree angles, and the church and school in perfect symmetry.

"The kids did 90 percent of the work on that mural," he said. "It's somewhat simplistic, but I designed it that way. The kids got a big kick out of it. It really belongs to all of them."

But it belongs to Thibodeaux, too, who grew up in that same neighborhood and played in Cloverland Park as a child. He remembers trips to the art museum with his mother and with his classmates, and he remembers the third-grade teacher who gave him his first art book.These children, Thibodeaux is sure, will remember their mural.

"Before working on this mural, these kids may have not been exposed to reading things in art. Maybe it taught them to do that: look deeper and find the symbolism that is there," he said.

Educator and artist Marsha Dorsey-Outlaw, who helped children paint murals in Stude and Godwin parks in the summer of 1998, also treasures her experience with the program. "It changed the perception that the museum was some place you had to get dressed up in your Sunday clothes and you couldn't speak above a whisper," said Dorsey-Outlaw, who now teaches at Project Row Houses, a Houston arts center.

"Art Brings the World Together." A mural by the children of Godwin Park and Marsha Dorsey-Outlaw

"The interesting thing about working in parks in the summer time is that, working inside the recreation center, you have to compete with gorgeous days when kids would want to go swimming or play basketball or just hang out with their friends," she said.

It takes two full weeks for the kids to visit the museum, design the mural, execute it on plywood then mount it outdoors with a ceremonial unveiling. "Once it all came together, and it was mounted on the wall and unveiled, the kids' eyes really glowed," said B.J. Holmes, who was the manager at Godwin Park when Marsha Dorsey Outlaw and 15 children painted five totems depicting different cultures, like the African kikango, or memorial effigy posts, they had seen in the museum.

Holmes' daughter, Charlecia Johnson, worked on that project as a nine year-old. "I didn't know I could paint," she recalled. Now, when she goes to the museum, "I look at the exhibits more artistically now."

Michelle Weatherspoon, a teacher and past president of the Park Advisory Counsel, said her niece Daniella Onocheia still beams with pride about the work she did on the mural as a 10-year-old. "Every time we pass that way , she'll say, 'Look, there's my mural.' It was very uplifting and motivational for the children - and it motivates me, too, because it shows that kids can produce."

For another mural in Stude Park, Marsha Dorsey-Outlaw showed the children the museum's Fauvist paintings - bold, brash, colorful canvasses by Matisse, Andre Derain and others who used unnatural colors. Their school got its name from a sneering, turn-of-the-century critic who dismissed their paintings as "fauves" or wild beasts.

"I asked the kids, 'Wouldn't it be neat to be able to paint a blue dog and a pink sky and a blue sun?' They got a really big kick out of that," she said. She outlined their fanciful cityscape in pencil on plywood, "but I drew it exactly from their drawings, the crooked windows and all that personality that the kids put in. They didn't feel any sense of betrayal to their original compositions."

"A lot of them really surprised themselves as to what they can do. It was more than just the art. It was a matter of committing to something and seeing it all the way through," the artist said.

A mural by the children of Stude Park and Marsha Dorsey-Outlaw

Mercedes Perez-Meyer, the museum's community programs manager, said she regards her work as "grassroots audience development." "The fact that I'm out there, that people get to see me and know me, it's important," said Perez-Meyer, who emigrated from El Salvador as a 12-year-old and switched majors at the University of Houston from business administration to art history.

"It's important for us to be out in the community," she said. "They see that the museum is not only interested in your coming to them, but also in participating out in the community and servicing the people that are out there. When we do our park projects, we are reaching kids that would not be reached otherwise."

The museum and the parks made a special effort to recruit children whose parents had neither the time nor the money to sign them up for art classes at the Y or elsewhere. Not all the children in the Art in the Parks program are underprivileged, "but a great, great many are forgotten kids - kids that literally get dropped on our doorstep before the park even opens," said the Parks Department's Tatum.

The museum and the parks program created five more park murals this summer (2001) bringing the total to 26. That leaves 31 parks to go, and after that Tatum is already eyeing new targets of opportunity: the outside walls at scores of Houston swimming pools and tennis courts. "The community is embracing it and loving it," she said. "We are just moving along like a freight train."