Last month, Stocklmeir Elementary hired me to paint four handball walls with panda murals that would support their campus-wide campaign to celebrate kindness. Their criteria were that each mural should celebrate kindness, include at least one panda, and, because the murals were in the middle of a large school (1100 students), they wanted the artwork to be bold and colorful so they could be enjoyed even from the edges of campus.
The only thing I like better than painting positive murals about kindness is giving and receiving it. Kindness is love in action, and it is immediately obvious to most of us when it is missing in an interaction. I have had the pleasure of taking a few trips this summer, and with that comes the mixed bag of airline travel. Southwest Airlines understands they are dealing with human beings, who are universally susceptible to humor. Their effort to humanize the travel experience has fueled their success. United Airlines… well, do you look forward to flying United? They are concerned with many things, but people don’t seem to be one of them. TSA employees have it the worst. To be fair, their job description prioritizes efficiency, not customer service, but treating people as “the “things that need to be processed” is dehumanizing for everyone. It is surely harder on them to have to do that all day long, than to be one of the cogs briefly passing through the turnstile. Whether we are six or sixty, we feel safer, and happier, when our humanity is recognized and shared in our daily interactions, even with strangers.
Here is what the ball wall looked like before. It’s fine. It’s like that United Airlines “fly the friendly skies” fine. Who needs art?
Good teachers instinctively know they need to engage their student’s hearts first before they can teach them anything. It turns out we think better, we learn better, and we behave better when we feel safe, and seen. The spaces we create provide cues for expected behavior. Airports, for example, are not curated for dance parties. Except for that last month, as I was traveling alone back from Cost Rica, I heard a saxophonist in the San Salvador airport playing one of my favorite songs. Naturally, I dropped my bags and boogied my heart out. As proof that this was not common airport behavior, strangers started breaking out their phones to video the event. I was just taking cues from my environment! Somebody had the brilliant idea to bring live art into the airport and issued that amazing saxophonist a permit. It wasn’t my fault, but my day was much happier, maybe the saxophonist also.
Spaces that feel kind and welcoming engender much kinder (and in the example above, more playful) behaviors. It’s not intuitive, but when efficiency trumps kindness, it can create more problems than it solves.
In 2016, I painted a series of four murals at Stocklmeir with a fantastic team of artists who were part of my first Mural Painting Masterclass. Remembering the fun I had that week with the class, the kids, and school staff makes me smile inside. We all learned so much and enjoyed a great connection together. Looking back, the magic happened when we took the time to interact with the kids, answer their questions, and make connections. I recall I kept cracking the whip and telling my trainees to “Get back to work.” In retrospect, I can see how I lost sight of what our real work was there. The efficiency approach is ultimately the biggest waste of time. You miss out on all the fun in life.
Artists Chris Dufur and Mario Aguilar helped me get the ball wall murals started. I typically work alone because I enjoy tuning out everyone and everything else so I can absorb myself completely in the work. However, I always learn something working alongside other artists, my world is expanding a bit further. I get feedback on my own approach and pick up a new tool or trick, but also what they are listening to, what they are working on, and how they are doing their professional artists hustle. I resist getting out of my efficiency myopia, but I return home happier from my day when I have shared the experience with others.
This playful mural was funded by the school district and by the PTA. Art doesn’t happen unless there is demand from the community and support from leadership. Funding art has to be a priority alongside other capital improvements and the laundry list of competing possibilities for the limited financial resources. The success of the previous campus beautification with murals certainly helped win over some skeptics and build broad support for the idea from the school community, but this project was driven by the Principal and Vice-principals enthusiasm to bring more color and fun to the campus, and reinforce a culture of kindness.
Will this art make a difference? These ball walls are at the center of campus. Any parent, member of the community, staff or student will pass these walls if they come on campus. Stocklmeir is making a clear statement to the school community: We believe how you treat people matters, we believe how you are treated matters, and we want to cultivate a school community that feels safe and kind. Based on the colorful, easy messaging of the art, it is also evidence that they are a “kid-friendly” environment.
The effort of efficiency, which is usually coupled with rushing and the stress that comes along with it, is the enemy of kindness. It is not kind to ourselves, and as a result, we are less kind to others. This is a lesson I am still learning – and still forget – on an ongoing basis. I posted one of the early designs for this project on my dining room wall. I hope seeing it daily will remind to make room in my day for kindness. The genuine concern, and real pause after “How are you doing?” and “Can I help?” makes everybody’s day go a little smoother.
Enjoy your summer.