For Dave Loewenstein, a Lawrence-based artist, there’s more to creating a mural than just painting the side of a building.
In his experience, making a piece of public art has encouraged conversations (and offers of help) from passers-by, resulting in what he calls an “improvised gathering space.”
“It’s sort of like a Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner for a while when the murals are going up,” he told Gina Kaufmann on KCUR’s Central Standard.
Loewenstein is featured in the new documentary, Called to Walls, which focuses on the Mid-America Community Mural Project. For three years, starting in 2010, the project worked with local residents in six towns to put up a mural that reflected their past, present and aspirational future.
He was drawn to public art through a circuitous route.
Loewenstein grew up in Evanston, Illinois. As an undergrad at Grinnell College in Iowa, he started taking his easel into the agricultural countryside to do landscape paintings.
“It was a completely different world,” he said. “I was struck by its newness and mystery.”
During his time in Iowa, the farm crisis was in full bloom. He wanted to understand more about what he was painting. So, after getting his MA from Purdue University, he headed to upstate New York to be a farm apprentice on an organic vegetable farm.
In 1991, while in grad school at the University of Kansas for landscape painting, Quinton’s Bar & Deli, which was just opening, asked him to create a mural. He painted the life cycle of a sunflower in vivid ochre, sunburst yellow and blue hues.
“I thought it was a really interesting proposition. I had no idea how to do it,” he recalled. “But I took it on as a challenge and found, right away, I was just entranced by this notion because all of a sudden the audience for the artwork was no longer just folks who showed up at a gallery opening, but anybody and everybody on the street. And they weren’t hesitant about telling me what they thought.
“Not only that, oftentimes, folks would offer their help, and these projects became something much more than I’d ever realized as an individual artist in my studio. And I got the bug.”
Since then, he’s worked on murals all over the United States, as well as in Korea, Northern Ireland and Brazil.
Currently, he designs political activism prints, and he’s documenting an ongoing project, Give Take Give, which examines the gift economy of a dumpster near his house.
He is also leading the Kansas People’s History Project, which makes posters of under- and mis-represented individuals, groups or events from Kansas’s past. (“The past” meaning anywhere from 10 minutes ago and beyond, he said.)
In addition to working on new murals, he’s starting to restore the ones he finished 20 to 25 years ago.
“I get to go back to these places and understand and hear the stories from people who were children at the time these things were being made,” he said.
He’s heard how the murals have impacted their lives and what they’ve meant to the people of the community.
One woman in Joplin, Missouri, who initially had reservations about incorporating images of the tornado in the mural there, now calls it “a gift" — which brings tears to his eyes, he said.
“What (these projects) do in wonderful ways, they begin relationships,” he said. “They begin relationships between artists and folks who live in these communities. They begin relationships between city administrators and those of us who are trying to make these projects happen and the owners of the buildings.
“So I see them as introductions and the beginning of long-term relationships.”