At some point during the “Nature is Home” fine art mural project on Ilha das Flores, a small island in the Azores, the project took on a life of its own. I can pinpoint the moment: it was the afternoon I painted this canary. We had asked – and been granted – permission to paint the wall from the owners of the ruin just that morning. Though the mural only took three hours to complete, this piece looked and felt integrated into the soul of the island.
I felt like my style and subject had found the perfect wall to call home. It was my favorite thing I had ever painted. After painting the canary I had one focus: to find more ruins to paint on.
The canary was the eleventh mural I painted in about as many days, and the project was gaining momentum within the community. Walls were being offered up spontaneously. When we knocked on doors, they were opening.
This was certainly not the case when Casey and Andrea first embarked upon the effort to bring mural art into their community. I’m sure you can imagine the reception two foreigners might receive upon proposing to their new community with a long and proud tradition of painting their walls bright white that a mural might be a good idea. However, by the time I stepped in to this project, the legwork and approvals for the bulk of the walls had been approved. How in the world did Casey and Andrea win over the Florentinos? The answer might surprise you: It started with cake.
When Casey and Andrea first moved to Flores, bought property, and started clearing the land around the decrepit house, they received a chilly reception. It was difficult to get “hellos” or smiles out of the neighbors. A few months after they moved to the island, the lease for the airport café became available. The airport is a hub of activity on the sleepy island. Casey and Andrea spotted an opportunity to overhaul the airport café from a waiting room that happened to serve coffee to an inviting destination for locals and visitors. They replaced the cigarette vending machine in the corner of the café with a lending library, including a trove of photo and research books about the island. They painted one wall deep blue and set out hand-picked flower arrangements on the tables. They partnered with a native Florentina, Dora, and together Dora and Andrea began to perfect recipes for homemade ice cream, soups and liqeurs that featured locally grown ingredients. In a stroke of genius, they filled the bar counter with their signature offering: creatively decorated, house made cakes.
Managing the Café das Flores transformed Casey and Andrea’s roles from outsiders into vital participants. Their daily presence built trust and warm relationships within the community. I noticed a correlation once I arrived between the walls we had approval to paint and who was a regular at the café. This was local politics at its best: regular, one on one conversation at the local coffee shop. The municipal headquarters was conveniently located across the street, and the government officials who worked there stopped by several times a day for an espresso and to ogle the latest edible creation. Who can turn down a slice of warm cake? Oh and by the way, Antonio, I have a great idea for that neglected wall on your building across the street…
During my stay, I sampled cakes flavored with chocolate mint, savory spinach-herb, Atlantic sea salt caramel, and, my favorite, coconut. The cakes are all artfully decorated from a variety of edibles including nasturtiums, cinnamon sticks, mint leaves, maria cookies, and roasted nuts. Despite layers of approvals for their plan (some approvals would need to come from all the way from Lisbon), their guerilla cake tactics proved to be an unfair advantage. The café created a daily point of connection between themselves and the community, building trust and a shared vision for what they could create on the island.
Let’s return to the adventure of hunting for more ruins to paint.
This proved to be a difficult endeavor. Tracking down ownership or custodial rights on the older structures can involve months of detective work. I had three days left on the island. I pinpointed one ruin I was dying to paint but Casey and Andrea had not yet located the owner and time was running out. I printed out a picture of the wall and showed it to Dora at the café.
“Dora, can you help me?”
“Hmmm, I have an idea who the owner is. I think she was a neighbor of mine many years ago. I will talk to her for you.”
I drew a design for this mural right on that printed photo, with a big heart and one word, “Obrigada”, and handed it to Dora. She went out on a search to find the lady and came back an hour later with the green light.
“Yes, you can paint the wall.”
I was soooo happy to get that green light. I especially appreciated how everyone was working together, new friends and old friends, to bring something unusual and beautiful into the community.
I began to imagine this mural project as an island-wide scavenger hunt, with tourists having to get out of their cars to track down the bird paintings. It would be art that locals could stumble across in their daily lives that might shift their perception of what they experience as ordinary; a humble barn wall becomes a canvas that can amplify the extraordinary beauty of the environment.
I received feedback that this was indeed the case. One cyclist told me later about his first encounter with the sparrow when he was out on his daily morning ride. This ruin is situated on a gently sloped straightaway on an otherwise twisting two lane road that leads into the main town on the island. Joaquin bikes this route most mornings and described to me his awe as he came out of the bend of the turn, focused and present on his bike, and saw the sparrow emerge from the mist for the first time. He said it gave him chills.
While I was painting my third ruin, which is located a bit off the main road and overlooks breathtaking Fajã Grande, a couple of tourists stopped by to check out the view. They wondered about what I was doing and I explained that I was painting a mural. They looked perplexed, and showed me a photo they had taken on their phone of another mural I painted, and asked, “Like this one?” I responded, “Yes, I painted that one too!” Oh! Recognition. They began to scroll through their smartphone photos, and, intermixed with their photos of sunsets and waterfalls were photos of almost every single mural I had painted. It was like being on vacation with them. They were inadvertently taking the inaugural test drive of the bird mural scavenger hunt, and we were all piecing it together at the same time. Delight.
This is the view from the Stargazer ruin. A mountainside of waterfalls on your right and amazing views of the Atlantic on your left. Watch your step, folks. Set out your picnic blanket and sit a spell…
By the third week the project felt bigger than me. Actually, it was bigger than me all along. I had an incredible team that contributed to the success of the project. A local contractor, Joao, set up and moved whatever scaffolding was needed, usually daily. We often didn’t know where I would paint until an hour before, and he and Casey would hustle to make it happen. Johnny (actually, his name is also Joao, but he graciously Americanized his name to avoid Joao confusion), who usually works on the farm with Casey but was recovering from a concussion, was almost always in the vicinity while I painted, rolling around the scaffold, holding the paint tray, and acting as ambassador for the project to anyone that stopped by to watch. If you click on any of the time-lapse videos, you will see Johnny was a ubiquitous presence. Our conversations, or whatever you call the communication between two people without a common language, mostly revolved around the profound beauty of life. Halfway down the rabbit hole of our conversations that I would realize that I had no idea what language either one of us was speaking, but there comprehension nonetheless.
Antonio, an Azorean friend of Casey and Andrea, flew from the island of San Miguel to conduct interviews with locals and serve as translator. Sonya, my studio manager, came with me to keep us all calm and manage the camera. There were two WWOOFers, Cami and Naomi, also staying in the house with us, who came out and helped paint the base coat on a couple of the murals. Dora and Andrea would send hot galaos (my favorite Portuguese coffee drink) and sandwiches to the work site. It was like summer camp, all these strangers coming together and make stuff. Casey was the camp counselor, working hard behind the scenes to keep the campers happy and drive the bus. I loved being a part of this amazing team of people. We were having so much fun we never took a group photo, but almost everyone makes an appearance in this time-lapse video of us painting the Kindergarten entrance:
The kindergarten entrance mural plays the impish stepchild to the impressive façade of the main church.
I think each mural I painted on this trip won a “best ever” award in my book in one category or another. Painting these three Roseate Terns is definitely my favorite jobsite ever. After a spell of painting I would put on my snorkel mask, jump in, and swim around the cove.
Projects that feel like summer camp don’t come along every day. Where is the universe’s repeat button? Anybody know of a remote subtropical island in search of a mural artist? Ha. Even if I can’t find the repeat button, I do know there are a myriad of ways to express gratitude.
I spent the last three days of my Portugal trip at a house Casey and Andrea have on the Azorean island of San Miguel, where they lived for four years prior to moving to Flores. I decided to paint a really big thank you card right on their living room wall during my stay. Casey told me the crocus is one of his favorite flowers, and I saw hedges of them in bloom in the front and the back of the house. They haven’t been back to the house since I was there, and I haven’t yet mentioned my spontaneous painting project to them yet, so as they are reading this newsletter they are having big – and hopefully pleasant – surprise…
I hope this project gets imitated. Using art in public spaces to amplify the incredible natural beauty that is already present will increase community pride and interest in preserving species and landscapes that are unique.
Is it possible that your community is just waiting for an art evangelist? Could it be you? If you have ever had the thought, “I want to facilitate a mural project in my community”, I want to help you get started. I wrote A Rough Guide to Kickstarting a Mural Project just for you.
Although, it is quite possible that the best place to start every mural project is with a slice of homemade cake and good conversation.
Dora’s Bolo de Coco:
1½ cup of sugar
½ cup of vegetable oil
1½ cups of finely shredded coconut
Up to 2 cups of water, as needed
2 cups of flour
1 tablespoon of baking powder
Beat the egg whites separately until they reach a foamy consistency, then set aside.
Mix the flour, sugar, coconut, and baking soda, after, add the veggetable oil and egg yolks and add as much water as needed to reach a pudding like consistency.
Add the previous white eggs foam to the batter and mix lightly. Grease and dust with flour a bundt cake mold. Bake for 45 min at 350 degrees.
For the topping:
1 cup of shredded coconut.
1/2 cup of sugar
3/4 c. cream
Lime juice from about half of a lime.
Milk, as needed.
Mix the sugar, cream, and lime juice in low heat for a few minutes until the mixture gets a bit darker. Then add the coconut and a touch of milk if the texture is too thick.
When the cake cools, Gently loosen the cake from the pan and and flip over onto a clean surface. Pour the topping over the cake. Decorate with whole cinnamon sticks.