Think about the last art project you ever completed in the last art class you ever took.
It could have been the rustic landscape of the cafeteria you painted in the second grade. Maybe it was the sculpture of a human head, the one that when push came to shove, you were able to successfully pass off as an abstract to your high school teacher. Perhaps during college you experimented with the art of mime because you were still finding yourself and — more importantly — were still two credits shy of graduating.
Whatever it was, odds are that local artist Natalia Pilato has you beat. As part of the dissertation research for her Ph.D in Art Education, Pilato organized a collaborative effort involving more than 175 people to design and create a mural in the town of San Ignacio, Belize.
We wanted to pay tribute to this woman who pretty much birthed a community.
The mural, titled “A Painted Conversation,” was hand painted on 32 panels, 5 feet by 5 feet each. By November, a total of 800-square-feet was covered with photo collages and traced images.
“I’m so pleased with it,” Pilato said.
Her research examines how people build positive relationships through art processes — which in non-Ph.D terms basically boils down to the role that art can and does play in community engagement.
Pilato previously completed two large-scale community murals, “The Color of Music” and “Dreams Take Flight” in State College and continues to find herself drawn to the medium.
When it comes to larger than life, motion pictures have the advantage speech, sure, but right combination of still images — even at only a fraction of the size of a movie screen — can still get people talking.
“The conversation it creates both during and after, it’s a living art form,” Pilato said.
Belize is a place close to Pilato’s heart and living room. Her children are Belizean and she spent some time there during the ’90s, always intending to return.
Before anyone got on a plane, prep work began in State College — or on the Internet, depending on how finely you want to split the hairs on this particular paintbrush. Pilato raised nearly $3,000 for high-quality art supplies on Kickstarter.
“I raised a ton of money for it from here before I even went down there,” Pilato said.
Transporting those tools to Belize would have normally cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $2,000, but an altruistic shipping company based out of Chicago offered to haul the freight for free.
In Belize, Pilato worked closely with students from Galen University to design and implement the mural. It was important to the artist that the mural would accurately reflect the people, culture and town of San Ignacio.
Students were dispatched into the community to gain a sense of what the townspeople wanted to see starring back at them from the giant mural.
After receiving great feedback from the community, I realized the power of art. It created a sense of unity, which is something that exceptionally valuable in community that faces several social problems.
Miriany Lalchand, a student at Galen University
They were armed with a series of five questions, asking community members for one problem they thought the city was facing or a single word for how their home made them feel.
Miriany Lalchand, a student at Galen University, found it to be a rewarding experience.
“After receiving great feedback from the community, I realized the power of art. It created a sense of unity, which is something that exceptionally valuable in community that faces several social problems,” Lalchand said.
Pilato and the students charted the answers they received and did their best to pinpoint where the individual responses overlapped. Having collected a variety of themes worth exploring, they were now faced with the difficult task of finding a focus.
“There’s no way to represent everybody’s ideas,” Pilato’s said.
One of the primary focal points that emerged was the late Meridith Sanz, a midwife who had delivered more than 1,000 babies within the community.
“We wanted to pay tribute to this woman who pretty much birthed a community,” Pilato said.
While Pilato and her growing army of international volunteers became busy painting the mural inside St. Andrew’s Community Center, many of the townspeople of San Ignacio found other ways to contribute.
One kindly citizen hired workers to help repair the crumbling wall that the mural was to occupy.
“They did more than I could even imagine,” Pilato said.
The mural was painted on to fabric inside the community center before it ever touched the wall. Angela Wu, a student at Galen University, thinks that the finished piece makes a definitive statement about San Ignacio.
“It gives off the impression that the community is tightly-knit, helpful, that the people here support recreational activities that benefit the community in the long run and really diverse and colorful,” Wu said.
Pilato is simply pleased with the place of pride the mural occupies within the town.
“It’s like I birthed this baby and they are taking care of it,” Pilato said.
For more on “A Painted Conversation,” visit http://www.facebook.com/CayoMural.