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Raw materials: Karen Kelly

Karen Kelly is a psychotherapist from Concord, New Hampshire, and a global activist for peace and reconciliation. Much of her work has involved the creation of large-scale public murals -- often in troubled areas ofd the world. She's overseen mural projects in Asia, South America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, and Europe. She's done several projects in Northern Ireland, which has a tradition of public murals emphasizing sectarian conflict. Her mural work began almost by accident, at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.


I was there with a group called the Global Heart Coalition during the NGO [non-governmental organizations] conference. We had an amazing site for a mural at the bottom of the stairs where tens of thousands of people would pass by. Artists and people from all over the world contributed. It was a great beginning. 


You weren't an artist yourself; how did you get involved in the mural?

It snuck in for me. What happened was, in getting ready for that trip, I was part of the founding group of that collective of organizations. And I got assigned to facilitate the artists' group at a preliminary planning meeting. So I was sitting there with all these artists from all over the world, and we'd do the introductions. We'd get to me, and I'd say well, I'm not really an artist. And then I realized that two people had given me a card, one of these beautiful water painting cards, that talked about being an artist without paint. An artist of life, an artist of people. And as I talked with the group, they said "You are an artist." So I began to think of myself in that way. And I met a man from St. Petersburg, Russia who had done a collaborative project with Russian and American artists, that inspired the idea to go and do community murals. 


In a way, it might be easier for a non-artist to coordinate a project, because you're less likely to have an ego problem, or your own ideas.  

I'm glad you said that and not me. [laugh] If I have a 3-year-old in the room, and they have an opinion, I want that person's opinion to be as validated as the person who is an artist. And I have had a little bit of, I'll say, work to do with some artists who come with their preconceived ideas, and have a lot of ownership about it. So sometimes it's hard. 

But I find that if they're willing to be engaged in the whole process, then they really enjoy it and they love the ownersip being across the whole community. And there is definitely a special place for their talent as artists. And what's important is that I can't pull this off. I have to facilitate. The process has to work. 


Does your psychotherapy training help in bringing people together and making the group function?

Well, I'd like to think that helps. And another way I see the psychotherapy coming in is that, I have sat with people who are willing to pay a lot of money to change, because they are not happy. Their life isn't going the way that they want, and they really really want to change. But time and time again, they come back and they don't change. And I realize that change is very, very hard.  So if you take that to a community level, where you have lots of people's personal and personality issues playing in, change becomes even harder. And what works for people is to create a vision and hold that vision out in front of them, so it pulls them forward into a new place. So I really like how murals do that; it's like a cognitive tool for change within a community. You put the values out there, people see it every day, and it's inspiring. It helps you remember who you want to be.   

How does a project come about? You can't just show up in Baku with a box of paints and say "Hey, let's do a mural!"

Well, I have done that on occasion. [laugh] But we'll talk about how it's more likely to happen. 

Because I did the first one at a United Nations conference, I got hooked into the UN network, and I've done several murals at conferences like the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. But the one that was most interesting to me in light of the world situation is the one in Istanbul. That was for a [1996] UN conference on human settlement, which was referred to as Habitat II. It was looking at where we are all going to live, as we go beyond six billion people on the planet. 

The bottom line was, in order for us to come there, the [local government]  had to lift a ban that said all art had to be Islamic. And they did lift the ban in favor of this project for a message from the youth of the world and their community, for global harmony. Not only did they do that, but they funded us to go over there, they built a wall in a park that was near the delegates' conference. It was really a joy to be able to feel that support from the community.  


So, tell me about a time when you just dropped in with a box of paints. 

This was actually quite fun. We had the World Games for Special Olympics in Connecticut several years ago. And I had someone who wanted to get me in there to do a mural project, but didn't make all the connections. So the day was arriving, and I didn't know where I was going or what I was doing, but I decided to just go to New Haven the night before and i said, "I'm just gonna figure this out." 

What I needed was the athletes, who were to paint the mural. So I found the Olympic camp where the athetes would hang out, and of course it was a restricted area. But I kind of observed for a while, and then I just pulled up in my car. The security person was there, and I said, "Hi, I'm the one doing the mural project." 

And he asks for my name. And of course it was on no list anywhere [chuckle]. And I said, "Well, I'm sure this is where I need to be."  Which was, in my mind, absolutely true: This is where I needed to be. And the man eventually let me in. 

Well, once I was in, I was golden. And I just walked through and told people, "Hi, I'm the one doing the mural." "I don't know about it. Who did you talk to?" "Oh, I don't know." 

We ended up setting up right in front of the grandstand where all the announcements were being made. Everyone loved it. I'm sort of proud of it, and sort of ashamed of it [laugh] at the same time because it was kind of sneaky.  But it was a good event. 


How do you come up with a broad overall concept for a mural?

Most of the ones I've done have been around the question of what's needed to make the world a better place. We start with brainstorming session of everyone who's there. We've done it with as few as 20 and as many as 200 at one time. So everybody is brainstorming until the process is exhausted. 

Then we divide into small groups. We try to get no more than about 10 groups, because everybody has to report back. Not with an ear for, "Ours is better," but an ear for "How can we make theirs work together with ours?" 

And what's been amazing to me, time and time again, is that I'll go around looking at all the different groups, and the similarities are obvious. So by the time yo come back together and share, you've got a lot of similar elements. It just becomes an issue of, how do they tie together visually in the mural? 


You've worked in a lot of faraway places, and also in quite a few communities in New England. Are there differences between doing a mural close to home, and working in a place like Belfast or Azerbaijan?

There are always similarities and there area always differences. Certainly, the kind of differences you see reflect the violence or the poverty that might exist in another place. That is reflected in places like Belfast; people might come up with "no guns" or "no bombs." It's very hard to move them from "No something" to a "What does it mean you have instead?"  

We haven't worked enough in this country in the inner-city areas, the places that would be more like the trouble spots overseas. We did do one mural in Harlem, but it was done with international kids from all over the world and inner city kids from all over New York. That's probably the closest we've come to that kind of work in this country. The other things we've done in this country were things we were requested to do -- like I have a couple coming up that are enrichment specialists in some of the schools who have a wellness day, or the sixth graders at Hollis who are creating the gift they leave behind to their elementary school. So it's more those kinds of things that come up here. 

We have one coming up in Littleton, which is kind of along the lines of hope through history. So it's their historical underpinnings that provide a sense of hope for the community. So there are definitely differences. As I think about doing more work in the United States, I remember that five or six years ago, I began when I talked to groups of youth in the United States, asking them if they think their future is going to be better than their parents'. And I've been very sad to see that most of the kids didn't feel that their future was going to be better. 

The work that really needs to be done in this country is about building an American dream that the kids really believe can be possible. What they believe is good for all of the world, not just here. 



(This interview was recorded in December 2001, when the events of 9/11 were still fresh in everyone's minds and the US had just launched the war in Afghanistan.  You can hear the entire interview at NHPR's website.)  

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