This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: A mural on the public art wall near Powell Symphony Hall may be temporary, but has permanent impact.
“Reflective Mythologies: Portraits (re-mixed)” explores mythmaking through art, and this through the eyes of 25 students who participated in the project that was led by Craft Alliance. It was led by Christopher Burch, an artist who has roots in University City.
For Burch, myths are more than simple stories.
“These are stories about collective human experience; and if you can tap into them, you can also understand yourself and your place in this world on a more deeper, profound level,” he said.
To bring these stories to life for the students, Burch offered readings on archetypes, symbolic gestures and symbols of transformation, along with having the students complete personality maps so they could better choose how they wanted to portray themselves in relation to mythology.
“It was really interesting because you got to know each student on a different level because this was their personality, this is how they’re choosing to represent themselves. So that mural is also, too, a testament to how these students actually see a part of themselves that they might not necessarily expose to the outside world all the time,” Burch said. “I feel like it’s a really dope, kind of intimate look, but a very powerful gesture at the same time.”
What the students took away from the project was a similarly personal affect, despite the fact that their art is very much public.
Anna Maria Zaggy, 16, found significance in being able to tap into her Mayan roots through the symbols she chose to portray. Her part of the mural has three photographs of her. The outer two were painted to display her personality, while the one in the center represents who she is. It contains the Mayan goddess of death, a power symbol and a jaguar god.
“It means a lot because my heritage is on a wall. I don’t know for how long, but it’s on a wall,” Zaggy said. “The people who see it might not know it, but I know it, the people who I worked with know it, and that’s all that really matters.”
In the future, Zaggy plans to list this piece among the others in her portfolio. She hopes to go to college for art, be it anything from photography to graphic design. Pursuing art and artmaking has become rather meaningful.
“It means I can express myself and not worry about people saying, ‘Oh, that’s wrong, you shouldn’t do that, you shouldn’t do that.’ It helps me be me,” she said.
Like Zaggy, Zoe Achilleus, 15, counts the piece she created as an inclusion for her portfolio. She is a participant in Craft Alliance’s Craft-A-Future program, which helps budding art students develop portfolios as they work toward attending an arts program in college.
Achilleus’ piece focused largely on transformation. She chose to portray a myth about the Japanese sun goddess, in which the goddess hides in a cave and her family has to lure her out.
“The way I interpret it is that she’s hiding from herself and from the world,” Achilleus said.
The goddess, she said, had her eyes closed because she was “not looking at what she can be, and instead, she’s reaching out to what she thinks she is. I wrote the words ‘What can you be?’ all around her halo and I want the painting to ask people that, to ask them who they are and what they want to be.”
These results were certainly satisfying for Robert Longyear, the community outreach manager for Craft Alliance.
“I think [Burch] really tips the scales in favor of the students as far as them finding these new things in themselves or finding this kind of narrative that they can carry forward,” he said.
Along with the learning that went on in the artmaking process, the students seemed to enjoy working with Burch.
“He knows when to get serious and just work, work, work, but he also can just have fun and be playful and teasing,” Zaggy said.
Achilleus agreed that Burch was a helpful factor in each step of creating.
“I thought he totally got what it was like to be an artist growing up,” she said. “He really let you do what you needed to do during the process. … He also created a great environment conducive to getting into the moment for painting, always playing music, always giving everyone their space.”
Indeed, Burch is not new to teaching. Not only does he have about a decade of experience, but he remembers what it was like to be in public school and yearn to stretch his mind.
“I love to teach. I love to get in there and hit them with ideas that they [aren’t] necessarily are exposed to. And just work with them on their level,” he said. “I feel like it’s one of the things that is really important to me as far as being an artist and being a human being in this world.”
Aside from fulfilling the role of the teacher, Longyear found a number of other desirable aspects in Burch for this project.
“You want an artist who has kind of this absolute caliber, you want an artist who has this sense of sincerity, you want an artist who you get a sense that they’ve got this anthem in their chest, and you want an artist who can come in and do something special,” Longyear said. “Personally, I think we saw all those things in Christopher Burch.”
That “something special” has become a point of pride for Craft Alliance and the students who helped create the mural, making an audience almost secondary. The project seems to stand on its own merit.
“There’s this centripetal kind of thing that happens when all of these lives come together into one place,” Longyear said. “And this is just a way to extend that and, in a lot of ways, take the reality of what working in a studio is out into the world, outside our organization’s standard physical footprint, and then have this manifestation that’s even further down the street. I think the neat thing is it’s kind of all of us running forward, holding hands.”
“Reflective Mythologies” will be on display through July 19.