A Work In Progress

Wednesday 06 August 2008

Judith puts up a section of the Immokalee (2007) Mural

Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.
— Pablo Picasso

F rom an early age I loved working with my hands and wanted to be an artist. However, as I grew older the elitism of art disturbed me. Was art necessary when people were without work, food and shelter? I had to find a way to make art relevant. Public art became my solution and ceramic murals my medium. As a ceramic mural artist it was possible for me to create artworks for schools, hospitals and other public places for the enjoyment of everyone, not just the privileged few. Integrating a ceramic mural in a building personalized a space and made it accessible to people.

My recent installation of a ceramic tile mural for the Redlands Christian Migrant Association (RCMA) in Immokalee, Florida convinced me more than ever that art can make a difference. From the beginning, it was a perfect collaboration between architect, artist and client. We had a common vision and mutual respect.

RCMA is a non-profit organization founded in 1965 to help the children of migrant and low-income rural families. It operates charter schools, Head Start programs and daycare centers, as well as classes in literacy, health, parenting and staff development. Their headquarters in Immokalee is the winter home for migrant workers who harvest the local crops, in particular, oranges. The concrete building, which spans an entire block, includes two walls that curve into its central entrance doors. It has a prominent place in a town which otherwise has few amenities. The architect, Ted Hoffman, designed the building in 1996 envisioning a mural on both curved exterior walls. Thanks to the support and dedication of Barbara Mainster, the executive director of RCMA, and the staff, the project proceeded.

The area to be tiled was vast for the budget, approximately 208 feet long by 12 feet high. Hence, I developed the idea of a horizontal wave of handmade tiles through the center of the wall. 6-inch-square quarry tile would be used on the bottom section, incorporating donor tiles with the names of the people who contributed to the project. The section above the ceramic mural would also be commercially tiled.

I conceived the 208 foot long ceramic mural, 88 feet long on each exterior wall and 16 feet long on each interior wall, as a pictorial story commemorating the history and people of Immokalee. The mural begins on the left wall with the region’s natural environment; next the indigenous peoples; then the Spaniards with their cattle; the advent of agriculture and the beginning of migrant labor from Mexico, Haiti, Guatemala, and other countries. On the right wall, on which I am currently working, there will be present day representations of farming; the street and market scenes; family life and children at play and in school.

I was commissioned to create one half at a time to allow for fund raising and fabricating such a long mural. As with other murals, I worked alone for eight months forming and glazing the free-form tiles. I used a slab roller to roll out the clay, and an electric kiln to fire the hundreds of individual tiles. The clay was a terracotta body fired to cone 02. The tiles were in low bas-relief to add texture and shadow and invite people to touch and experience the artwork. A variety of glazes, matt to glossy, were used, as well as different clay bodies to represent diverse skin tones. I added details and folk images and patterns to engage the viewer and provide long-term visual stimulation.

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I n April, Tullio, my husband (an architect) and I worked for several long days in the hot Florida sun installing the mural on the left wall. The front of the building is directly on the street so we were aware of the flow of pedestrians. Each day children from the daycare center and charter school walked by and looked at us working. They pointed excitedly to familiar images, a cow, a sheep, a donkey and a mother making tortillas. Mexican women with long black braids pushed babies in strollers or cradled them in blankets on their backs, often with toddlers in hand. They would stop and say, “Que bonito” or “That’s beautiful” in English. Farm workers who were not employed for the day ambled down the street and stopped to view the mural or sit on a nearby planter to watch us work. Young men on bicycles rode slowly past, gazing at the images. On Easter Sunday the town was filled with male migrant workers who had the day off. There were many passers-by, some intoxicated and weary, and most unable to speak English, and yet they would give a thumbs-up as a way of expressing their appreciation. An old Haitian man with a cane commented, “It’s good, Mommy” and another man shook our hands saying he was learning English and had never met an artist before.

I had installed many ceramic murals in public settings, but the community’s reaction to the RCMA ceramic mural was overwhelming. No one took it for granted or walked by indifferently as is often the case in urban environments. The mural had an impact. Perhaps, the viewers saw images of people in the mural who were like themselves and so it reaffirmed their own identity, who they were and where they came from. Perhaps, it even gave them a sense of meaning in their otherwise bleak existence.

It is hard to imagine the life of the migrant worker. Although some families and relatives come to the U.S. together, it is usually men alone who make the journey because of desperate poverty. They arrive illegally and live with other men in cramped, dark cabins or trailers. They labor in the sun all day as pickers on large commercial farms, moving north with the growing season and returning south in the fall. Most of the money they earn is sent back to their families. Unable to speak English, they are isolated and vulnerable. Since most are illegal, there is the added anxiety of being discovered and deported to their native country. Their lives are restricted, uprooted and incredibly lonely.

Tullio and I were deeply moved by the condition of the migrant workers, by their devotion to family and the sheer beauty of their children. It was rewarding to work for an organization that was trying to improve the life of the rural poor. It was equally encouraging that RCMA recognized the need of people to have more than material necessities. They need literacy. They need opportunities for work and imagination. They need beauty in their lives.

Art, and in particular public art, has creative power. It can define and enrich a space. It can restore a sense of community by expressing its values and ideas. It can humanize an environment by adding form and color. Most importantly, art can represent feelings and celebrate hope and dreams, which are essential to human existence.

This article was originally published online on the ceramics monthly website.

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Judith Inglese grew up in New York City. From an early age she loved working with her hands and wanted to be an artist. With the encouragement of her parents, she explored various media: wood and welded sculpture, glass and metal screens and off loom tapestries. While still a teenager, she worked as a freelance toy designer for her father Frank Caplan, an early childhood educator and toy maker. Later, she designed covers for children's records.

But her love of clay, with which she played as a young child, led her to ceramic murals. Tile making was a way of working incrementally, while fabricating larger artworks that could be incorporated into public spaces and buildings.

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Immokalee Mural Image

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