Part of Community Life: The Murals of Dave Loewenstein

Dave Loewenstein is a muralist, writer, and printmaker living in Lawrence, Kansas. His richly colored and collage-like murals make public spaces more interesting and vibrant not just throughout Kansas, but also in places such as Arizona, Mississippi, and even Northern Ireland.

Given the very public nature of his work and the highly collaborative and community-based process he employs, Loewenstein has a deep understanding of creative placemaking in rural communities. Art and place are inextricably linked in his work as is the artist and those who share in the mural’s creation.

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Nine large birds in shades of blue and grey stretch their wings in flight, reaching together towards the upper right corner. Behind and below them is the patchwork of cultivated fields in golds, greens, and reds.

Migration in Great Bend, Kansas (Photo by Dave Loewenstein): From an April 29, 2011 article in the Lawrence Journal-World, Loewenstein noted, "I wanted what I was doing somehow to reach audiences outside the established art audience, to people I meet every day. I also felt like there was a social purpose for visual art that wasn't being used enough to engage in important issues of the day." In that same article, Saralyn Reece Hardy, director of the University of Kansas's Spencer Museum of Art, (and a former NEA director of museums and visual arts) said, "[Loewenstein] doesn't think of art as a rarefied commodity; he thinks of it as part of community life. He involves many collaborators."

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The mural surrounds the outer wall of the base of a concrete ampitheater-shape. One panel features a hand-cranked printing press expelling a sheet of newspaper against flames and a flaming building. Another panel features a can from the Kaw Valley Canning

The East Lawrence Waltz in Lawrence, Kansas (Photo by Dave Loewenstein): Loewenstein's community engagement process doesn't seek to persuade but rather to learn. He gathers people together from the community that will host his work and before even broaching the subject of a proposed mural, he wants to understand their experiences of art. Loewenstein is cognizant of the fact that a museum visit is an entirely different encounter with art from having a work be part of your daily environment. He noted, "I always get a laugh when I say the objects in museums all have same name, 'Do Not Touch.'" Loewenstein draws a parallel between the collaborative nature of creating a mural and working in community theater: "We're not only going to perform in a play, but we are going to write one."

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In 5 panels from left to right are a bright yellow old plane flying over a green patchwork field, a native businessman holding a document or map and points to a sky shape of western Nebraska, seven drummers surround a ceremonial drum in bright yellows and

Listening Back, Dreaming Forward: The Rhythms of Tonkawa in Tonkawa, Oklahoma (Photo by Dave Loewenstein): This mural is part of a project funded by Mid-America Arts Alliance, a regional arts organization based in Kansas City. The goal is to bring community-based art to places unfamiliar with the process and the product. Tonkawa was first in this series. Post-tornado Joplin, Missouri, is another site and that project is getting underway this summer. The town of Tonkawa is named for a local Native-American tribe, and Loewenstein was especially interested in the relationship between the town's Native and non-Native communities. He said it was very important in the initial conversations with residents that they felt safe, that they could say what they believed. He refers to this as a "speakeasy style" where everyone gets to say their piece and not worry about being criticized. "We need to hear each other if we're going to make something that has meaning and relevance." The mural was a collaboration between the Black Sheep Art Collective, Cy Wagoner, and Dave Lowenstein.

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Scaffolding fronts a wall with a drawn and partially painted mural. Four people with either deep purple or a smoky green paint are filling in the blank, white shapes.

The Pollinators in Lawrence, Kansas (Photo by Dave Loewenstein): The Pollinators was commissioned by the Spencer Museum of Art as part of a retrospective of the work of muralist and Kansas native Aaron Douglas (1899-1979). Early in the design research phase, Loewenstein and his design team realized that Douglas was one of several African-American artists from Kansas working during that era. The group also included photographer Gordon Parks, filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, and jazz musician Coleman Hawkins, among others. So Loewenstein broadened the mural's theme to also honor these masters. The title emerged as Loewenstein and his team tried to tie the theme of the mural to its site, a wall facing the location of downtown Lawrence's Saturday Farmers Market. Pollinating referred to the generative, nurturing role of both artists and bees, each helping others to bloom and grow.

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The Pollinators, a colorful mural finished on.

The Pollinators, completed. Photo by Dave Loewenstein

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Grant Cushinberry's large figure dominates the panel. In a bright blue shirt and pink baseball hat he points his left hand forward. Around him two children play on a seesaw, a couple walk along a street, and Grant himself in an orange shirt fixes a toy.

A Tribute to Grant Cushinberry from the Great Mural Wall of Topeka in Topeka, Kansas (Photo by Dave Loewenstein): This mural was the first section of large project designed to celebrate the city of Topeka. Grant Cushinberry was an active, generous, much-loved member of the Chesney Park neighborhood known for fixing toys for kids out of his garage, mentoring young people, maintaining a community garden, and other large-hearted activities. Loewenstein recounted taking an initial sketch of the mural to Cushinberry, explaining that since Cushinberry had contributed so much to the health and unique energy of Chesney Park, it only made sense to feature his large, inspiring presence at the center of the mural. Cushinberry's response when shown the rendering was a sly smile, "It's about time." The neighborhood agreed.

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A road rises on the left side of the mural, drops and curls on the right with the silouette of a red eagle on the underside of the curl. On the road are bicycle wheels, moccaisoned and bare feet, roses, and an evolving butterfly next to a purple wave that

What Flows Beneath Our Feet in Flagstaff, Arizona (mural by Black Sheep Art Collective, Cy Wagoner and Dave Loewenstein. Photo by Dave Loewenstein): The influence of place in Loewenstein's murals pertains not only to content but also to design issues, scale, and readability. The artist tries to make things as site-specific as possible, working closely with the history of the community, of the structure on which the mural appears, and/or the geographic location of that structure. The creation of this mural in partnership with a group of Native-American graffiti artists began before a site had been selected. Eventually Loewenstein and his team settled on the wall of a tee-shirt shop only to learn later that the building sat over a section of the Rio de Flag that had been diverted underground. That discovery prompted the title What Flows Beneath Our Feet, and, like the river, the mural reflects challenges that are overlooked or buried.

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A musician and several dancers perform in front of a large mural.

The Imagineers in Newton, Kansas (Photo by Dave Loewenstein): In a January 26, 2011, interview with Review, an e-magazine focused on the visual arts, Loewenstein said, "The mural process is an opportunity to engage people to manifest something they couldn't do on their own. Murals are what get me in the door, because people understand that idea. But then we get going on other things that can happen, and suddenly you've got a roomful of disparate people having a conversation about making something." As Loewenstein was working on The Imagineers, a member of the design team, who had recently returned from a Liz Lerman dance workshop, became very interested in choreographing a piece in Lerman's community-participation style as part of the celebration of the mural's completion. She used local residents, including a group of young people who had hung out on weekends in the parking lot where the mural was located, not only as the subject of the dance but also as the dancers.

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Four adults and a child sit at a table covered with items including trains and train tracks that become a flowing stream crossed by cattle, toy-sized buildings, a skateboarding crescent with two skateboarders. An older woman unfolds a paper crane and rele

The Imagineers, completed. Photo by Dave Loewenstein

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photograph of a grey stone building with a rounded arch over the entrance and the words 'The Marfa National Bank' next to the entrance.

Tributaries in Springfield, Missouri (Photo by Dave Loewenstein): Mary McCabe, executive director of Mid-America Arts Alliance (M-AAA), prizes the positive results of Loewenstein's work. "At M-AAA, we hold a core value that cultural expression is intrinsic to human beings. Our mission is to help people and communities express themselves," she says. "With Dave, the real work of art is the process that occurs." Loewenstein himself has noted, "To me, the mural is an artifact of that process. Murals end up becoming evidence of an experience. Places of memory and history…." This is true not only of the events depicted in each mural but in the memories of those who participated in its making.