MLK Day: An Artist’s Reflections

During my 3 years living in DC, I received an incredible commission – to paint three murals on three unused doors of Luther Place Church.  (In retrospect, seeing the number 3 appear so many times seems like a sure sign of the Holy at work in my life and the life of the church at that time!)  I was – still am – a young artist with such little experience in public art, especially in the heart of our nation’s capital.  But the Rev. Karen Brau believed in me and in the Spirit working through my brush.

3995793312_6bd70debdc_bThe first mural we decided on was of St. Francis.  I remember very clearly when I asked if she had anything specific in mind.  Her response: “You can do whatever you’d like.  But it must be whimsical, memorable, and distinctive.”  No pressure or anything.  The process took me about two months – one month of studying St. Francis and drawing sketches, and one month of bringing it to life on the church’s large front doors.  My fears subsided when the mural was completed, unveiled to an appreciative community and blessed with animals present.

I began to look forward to the next two doors, considering my work only a third of the way done – it was a triptych from the start.  And all the while, though the artistic aspect of it was thrilling, it was the process of studying and sketching that inspired and prepared me.  You see, these murals were never arbitrary.  Much thought and prayer went into each square inch.  The three-ness of the mural triptych represents the triangle of land on which Luther Place has stood tall since the mid 1800s.  St. Francis overlooks the small bit of a front yard which the church displays on the well-populated Thomas Circle.  His care for creation extends to the DC dog-walkers, ever abundant.  The remaining two doors were on very different streets – the bustling, gentrifying 14th Street corridor, and the surprisingly quiet, meditative Vermont Ave.  For many reasons, I had Hildegard von Bingen on my mind, and the Vermont Ave door seemed to be calling her name.  But Pastor Karen wanted the 14th St door painted next, and thus, the thinking and praying began.

IMG_8296I remember feeling strongly that the figure on the 14th St door should represent social justice, and PK and I agreed that at least one of the three doors should be a woman, and at least one should be a person of color.  The doors needed to represent the diversity of our changing world and the hopes for the growing congregation inside the doors.  I invited Rev. Mike Wilker (at that time, Director of Lutheran Volunteer Corps) to travel outside with me one day during work so we could brainstorm.  Together, we stood in the middle of the sidewalk and stared at the dulled red doors.  We listed many frontrunners – Gandhi, Oscar Romero, Mother Theresa, MLK Jr.  My thoughts hung on MLK.  I found the courage to voice what I was thinking: “I feel like it has to be Martin Luther King, Jr. because of the location and history of this church, but I’m afraid that it wouldn’t be a striking enough choice… so many things in this city already commemorate MLK.”  But Mike affirmed my gut reaction, and it was decided: Mural #2 would represent Martin Luther King, Jr.

I was excited to start my research and sketching, and especially excited at the timing of it all, as I was planning to unveil the mural on Easter 2010, which happened to fall on the day of MLK’s assassination.  This was especially meaningful in the context of Luther Place Church because his assassination, which caused riots all over the country, was a catalyst to waking up the Luther Place congregation to a collective life of action in the face of injustice.

But things didn’t go as planned.  In March, my dad was diagnosed with cancer and I went home to NC.  As I spent time with him in the hospital, it was necessary to find topics of conversation to keep our minds distracted from the fears at hand.  We kept coming back to the MLK mural.  What should he be wearing?, I asked my dad.  What quote should I use?  What images should be in the mural?  What should his facial expression convey?  Dad helped me think through all of these things.  In fact, at 4am in the ICU, we read the entire I Have a Dream speech aloud.  I knew I didn’t want to use King’s most popular quotes.  Yet the one I chose, stood out to me in that moment.  “We cannot walk alone.  And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.”  This part of King’s speech comes right after he says that our freedom is inextricably bound to our neighbor’s freedom.  “We cannot turn back,” King says.

IMG_8284The mural was unveiled the following January (2011) – 3 years ago (there’s that number three again!).  My dad’s health improved, and today, he has officially been in remission for 3 years.  The mural brightens 14th St, and perhaps slows some of DC as it speeds by.  Ironically, many people walk by that quote alone, too busy to think outside of their own heads.  The message will be there later, on their way back from where they’ve gone.  And it will be there the next day and the next – a constant reminder of the work we have to do…together.

I’ve been gone from DC for almost 3 years now, but a piece of myself has remained with each of those murals.  Oh the hours I talked to St. Francis, MLK, and Dorothy Day!  They have become heros (close friends, even) of mine, and I pray that they will continue to look over the Luther Place community – congregation and passersby alike.


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