Artist Sam Wisneski, who co-founded Thrive Collective with Jeremy Del Rio and others, recently reflected on the non-profit organization’s humble beginning. In 2011, Jeremy, a parent at PS 102 in Brooklyn, volunteered to coordinate the creation of a “Welcome” mural at the school, where his son Judah was a student. The mural, which included the word welcome in over 50 languages, represented the neighborhood’s wide range of ethnicities.
As a co-founder of Thrive Collective, what does it mean to you to see the growth of the mural program over the years?
SAM: It has been heartwarming to see the continued growth of Thrive Collective, as well as the positive impact that continues to be made in students’ and artists’ lives. It’s kind of crazy to think that by agreeing to “help out” with a mural back then (“Welcome”), an entire arts organization would be formed. It’s quite humbling to see how, to this day, artists are able to paint and do the work that they love, and students can grow, learn, and be inspired through these projects.
Describe the creative, collaborative process for that first mural back in 2011?
SAM: When Jeremy and I embarked on our first collaboration with the “Welcome” mural, I don’t think either one of us fully understood what we were undertaking. Aspects of this project were firsts for both of us. There was no game plan, so to speak, rather we were responding authentically to the needs of the students, the school, and the community.
To create the theme of “Welcome,” it seemed natural that it should be developed by the students as well as the members of the community; and the collaborative blueprint was born. I knew that the students were capable of doing this project, and doing it well, even if they had not yet realized it for themselves. Many things in life can seem overwhelming and out of reach. But if we focus on the end result, break the impossible down into smaller possible steps, then we have a chance at reaching our goal.
We asked the students how they would welcome someone into their school, home, or neighborhood. In Bay Ridge, being as diverse as it is, the responses echoed that rich diversity. The process was conversational, not prescriptive, and, like many conversations in life, searching for agreement can take multiple passes… Drawings, family photos, prized tea sets and much more were brought to the table when crafting the theme. But one thing was clear, everyone cared deeply about feeling welcomed and welcoming others.
Painting a mural can be an intimidating process, especially when none of the students had ever painted one, myself included. But we had all colored at some point in life, put crayon to paper, filled an empty circle with yellow to create the sun, or maybe a simple square and triangle that represented the home where our family lived. We were once so fearless in declaring what mattered to us, boldly building worlds with authority, rather than sheepishly asking “is this good enough?” I don’t believe that fire ever goes out as long as we have breath, but the flame does need to be fanned from time to time. In this project we made the mural process resemble the familiar coloring book motif, while making space for creativity and expression.
Once the wall was primed and the outline drawn, there were hundreds of eager little hands ready to paint. We learned, in real time, what worked and what did not. How much premixed paint was necessary and what could be mixed on the fly. We had a color map to follow, but it was more of a guideline rather than a rigid formula. There were moments of chaos, pools of paint where there should not be pools of paint, shadows of doubt whether a certain part of the mural could be “fixed” or not, but there was light at the end of the tunnel and at the end of the day it all worked out.
How did this creative process impact both students and artists?
SAM: This project allowed students to step more fully into their creative spirits, to stop asking for permission for every brush stroke and color choice, but to proclaim with joy, “Look what I did!” It allowed other artists from the neighborhood to contribute their gifts and paint alongside their neighbors, to share time and space creating something beautiful together.
For me, this project was a Godsend. I was going through a particularly dark period of my life and didn’t really have any direction. When the opportunity of the mural came along I thought “Sure, why not?” Even though I didn’t work with kids, didn’t do community projects, didn’t do “this kind” of painting, it was a change from the world that I had built for myself.
After finishing the mural and working with the kids and community it felt like I had turned a corner of sorts; realizing that the way I was trying to build meaning and freedom for myself in life was really just a prison of my own construction. Seeing art through the eyes of a child had renewed some aspects of my heart and mind. Painting with the kids was fun, exciting, adventurous, and wonderful… I am in a much better place now, but I am still seeking, but seeking with the faith of a child as much as is possible, because life is beautiful and wonderful, if only we can remember.