As I continue my hunt for murals, I see a whole host of different subject matters which have been included in murals. This choice of subject is tightly bound to the early idea of community murals – ‘community’ being the important word.
Art on walls for the public was about letting the people choose what they wanted to see and allowing the artist to interpret their ideas. The majority of murals from the late 1970s in London involved consultation with the people who would have to live with the artwork. And although it would be nice to say that these murals are people powered pieces, it seems that the final designs were very much about how the artist interpreted their requests and the artist’s ability to fulfill what had been asked of them.
Having spoken to some of the artists, there are different levels of putting the public back in the picture; sometimes this could be taken literally. Artists such as Christine Thomas, Brian Barnes, Gordon Wilkinson and Sarah Faulkner all included portraits of locals as part of their work. Brian Barnes is quoted as saying
“Now I am a public artist and that is reflected in what I paint. I put the public in the picture now.”
And these often accurate portraits of 1980s London people leave a snap shot of local life until the mural falls apart or is destroyed.
Of course, portraits have their own problems – Sarah Faulkner said that sometimes people didn’t like the end image of themselves and so they had to redraw and repaint. Often the sitter is a young person or teenager who is now 20 plus years older and has to see their younger self wearing the fashions and hair styles of the day which weren’t always flattering. It’s like having your bad school photo on everyone’s log-in page for facebook!
I’m sure many people who are included in the pictures feel honoured to have someone want to paint their portrait – for many, this seems like something that only happens to the rich or arty. For this handful, it was because it was their wall in their area.
The painting with portraits are part of a variety of subject matters. The pieces by Gordon Wilkinson and Sarah Faulkner ( see image below) feature the local area as the back drop, as does the mural ‘Crossing the red sea’ by David Bratby.
Brian Barnes’ mural on Thessaly road (now destroyed) involved taking the community down to the local seaside and snapping them enjoying a day out. The seaside theme bought the country side to the inner city Patmore estate and created a piece that didn’t need to remind the locals of the place where they lived.
Christine Thomas’ Big Splash (see image below) is an imaginary landscape based on stories about the history of the area. The people of that present time are taken back to an i time where it is all trees, the River Effra, butterflies and strange faced grebes! Dave Bangs’ Highbury Grove mural has the local school kids standing on top of an imaginary field populated with every kind of local wild flower – this piece incorporated community and took that to mean not just the people but the landscape. Both pieces offer more opportunity to improve your wildlife of London identification skills than to actually understand much about the area or the people.
One other mural which includes portraits is the wonderful Hackney Peace Carnival Mural in Dalston designed by Ray Walker. This captures a moment in history. I’ll set the scene – it’s 1983 and the GLC year for peace. A marvelous event is set up for Hackney – a carnival for peace complete with bands, banners and giant puppets! The faces seem slightly stylised but it is evident from the sketch work that it is of the local people. This mural also has a portrait of the artist ( see image below) and his wife. In this case, it is a memorial to the artist as he passed away before he could paint the piece; his wife Ann Walker and friend, Mick Jones completed the painting.
Other artists have also included themselves in their works so Brian Barnes is at the seaside in Thessaly road and Christine Thomas is painting vases in the Big Splash. Maybe for the artists being involved so closely with those community, they felt that they were a part of that place, at that time.
Perhaps the most important thing about these portraits is they allowed the locals to feel valued as part of their community and from a historical point of view they record things that are often unrecorded as they are felt of little value to the bigger picture of history.