We All Deserve to Live in a Visually Engaging Environment

Michael L. Miller
Berks Community Murals Coordinator

Twenty years ago, at the beginning of my career as an art teacher, a friend invited me to join her on a mural tour in Philadelphia. I had recently earned my MFA and developed that delicate balance of personal studio work as I guided my art students in the classroom. I was beginning to show my work in Philadelphia galleries and envisioned a future involved in that world…but that mural tour filled me with the passion to pivot. I saw how collaborative public art could transform the and engage with the lives of people in local neighborhoods and began to look for opportunities to create this type of work in Berks County.

Collaboration

Community-based art focuses on the shared encounter between an artist-coordinator and the community. We share our passion and enthusiasm for making art together with others. Some communities often do not have the opportunities to express themselves in a visual manner. As we begin to plan and design, we carefully listen to identify the messages a group wishes to express. We provide the art-making skills to aid in this expression. Its amazing to see the unique and diverse responses this artwork evokes.

A Shared Dialog

The design of the community art work must be the result of a shared dialog. The experience an artist brings to this discussion should help to further the ideas of the group. Each unique environment often reveals special resources available within the community like individuals with unique skills, available materials, or supportive community agencies. Flexibility to integrate these resources as well as an expertise with materials and processes guides the artist to make recommendations that allow the work to flourish.

Beliefs

While community arts projects often have some set direction to the final work, it is the process of collaboration, and the act of work itself that is of equal, if not greater importance. To enjoy the ride is as much of the experience as arriving at the destination. While a community may celebrate the results of the group’s efforts, the true beauty can be found in the effort itself. As the participants gain a more thorough understanding of the processes in which they work, they can exert more focus and depth into the work.

Goals

Programs that embody the ideals of community art will create dynamic environments where all members of the social and academic communities can interact. The act of creating work in this collaborative manner delivers such satisfaction and confidence, that participants will often seek out other ways to become involved in their community. This contagious spirit further transforms and empowers a community. Art thus becomes the catalyst for a much deeper quality of life that results from this community building.


"While a community may celebrate the results of the group’s efforts, the true beauty can be found in the effort itself."

Beauty of Collaborations


Over the past 20 years, I have coordinated over 50 projects through local community organizations. I also developed Public Art Workshop, an elective art course at Wyomissing Area High School that allowed students to learn about the importance public art in the fabric of a community as they worked to design, fabricate and install projects in the school, local, and Greater Reading community.

We partnered with Dean Rohrbach, who directed the West Reading Community Revitalization Foundation, in the development of a mural corridor in West Reading; a cluster of 30 murals located a block off the main street. The satisfaction I have experienced through this collaboration is beyond words.

A number of the students who were in the Public Art Workshop are underserved youth who struggle in many of their academic classes. A core element of this class is that students understand what the visual arts give to their community. The best moments of the course are installation days, when students are excused from their regular classes to work on-site installing a mural or mosaic. To hear the positive comments from people passing by on the street make the work real to these students, who may not receive much praise for their efforts in other classes. I hope this experience will help show them that they are contributing members of their community.

Today the mural corridor is a retreat for not only local residents, but also a draw for the entire county. Attention to detail and making the work site-specific has made the neighborhood a unique, attractive, and inviting experience for residents and visitors.

-Michael L. Miller

"My husband and I were touring the Mural Corridor in West Reading at the same time as a group of young men. One of them was bragging to his friends that he helped with these murals. He also excitedly provided me with information about the artwork. His pride, exuberance and sense of ownership for the project exemplify some of the positive intangibles infused into the neighborhood as a whole.”

From a letter to Dean Rohrbach, former director of the West Reading Community Revitalization Foundation