The Mural Project: Art in Hard Times


By The Mural Project Team

Art Not Shame is a Guelph based charitable organization that provides creative workshops with a view to talking about and reducing shame.

Our team was together the day the lockdown was announced; sitting around our communal lunch table (imagine?!), we were getting ready to launch one of our main program offerings, “F*ck Perfect,” as news of Covid-19 updated by the minute. We felt lost and deflated. We left that day with a vague and sinking feeling that we might not see each other for some time.

A couple months into lockdown, we were searching for ways to build community and speak to what was happening as we witnessed intersecting crises come to the fore, including increased isolation as a result of Covid-19, overdose numbers rising in our local community, and calls to rise up against white supremacy and anti-Black racism both here and around the world.

The Mural Project, the brainchild of social artist Melanie Schambach, emerged as one possible way to engage people across distance, and to act as a megaphone of sorts to voice issues of local and global relevance during this time. Melanie piloted her first virtual mural while stuck in Guatemala as a result of travel bans. We approached her about running one for Guelph and surrounding areas, with the intention of amplifying the voices of those who identify as Black, LGBTQ2I+, Indigenous, people of colour, newcomers, street-engaged, living with developmental exceptionalities, or struggling with mental health and addictions.

Mural participants share their in-process work from home.

When she said yes, together with project partners Guelph Neighbourhood Support Coalition and Guelph Community Health Centre, we got to work reaching out to eleven local community service organizations to spread the word. We launched with over 65 participants, kicking the process off with an online hangout where all participants were invited to listen to the words of local Knowledge Holders.

Each week participants receive an email describing the weeks’ activities, with goals ranging from learning how to use metaphor, to learning about ourselves and each other through the process. The first week’s activities asked participants to name possible themes for the mural. Among the themes identified were: racial inequality, homophobia, mental health stigma, police brutality, disability advocacy, gender equality, culture, social action, uncertainty, equal access to food, shelter, and income, knowledge sharing, community connection, integrity, love, faith, empathy, transformative justice, creation, and being in relation to difference. Once the initial sketch of the mural was complete, Melanie broke it up into one massive paint-by-number project and handed it over to the Art Buddies to work more intimately with smaller groups of participants.

Art Buddies are a group of 10 local mentors/artists who remotely assist participants in filling out their section of the mural using different mediums, including printmaking, acrylic painting, photography and watercolour, to name a few.

Clockwise from top left. Art Buddies meeting weekly on Zoom, Emily Beattie from Art Not Shame delivering art supplies to mural participants, and in process music making by musician Joni Nehrita, capturing the mural process through music, lyrics and observation.

In addition to the Art Buddies we have three paid positions who joined us through the Guelph Black Heritage Society with the intention of exchanging facilitation ideas and skills, as well as adding their voice to the project. And to our great fortune, beloved local musician Joni NehRita is witnessing the entire process and creating powerful musical soundscapes and songs based on what she is experiencing.

The process, and the final mural is, admittedly, hard to describe without witnessing it: but imagine one giant mosaic composed of many individual visual stories, using many different art mediums. Up close there is a richness of detail and specificity; from afar the stories are contained within one larger visual narrative that was co-created by Melanie, the Art Buddies, and participants. Additionally, each participant will record themselves explaining their piece and telling their story. Both the mural and the individual stories will be available online when it is complete. We are hopeful that the finished mural will be projected or displayed publicly in Guelph when completed.

We are so excited that we have been able to build bridges with so many wonderful artists, musicians, and participants from all of Guelph’s diverse communities, from Guelph to Guatemala. It has made this time rich and fruitful with art and stories. We have truly come to believe that our differences are what make us strong!

The Mural Project: Art In Hard Times, is made possible in part by the generous support of:

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