Public art like this mural in East Waco has become more popular recently.

THE ART IS NO LONGER HIDDEN.

THE CULTURAL FIELD TRIP.

The trip to see the hidden art meant a day away from the books..
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Most Empty Nesters remember the cultural field trip. As a grade schooler, you and your friends pile onto the bus for a day trip to the museum, the symphony or the play. Lots of giggles on they way downtown. Truthfully, only a small fraction of us were excited about the trip’s purpose; the buzz resulted from the absence of “real” school work and a chance to pick your seatmate. Teachers likely dreaded a day of shepherding their flock through unknown environs. The idea that children needed a well-rounded education made the trip necessary. The art was hidden in the big fancy building downtown with the enormous mural in the front room.

Before our COVID year, I wondered if the cultural field trip still existed. High-stakes testing generates a laser-like focus on activities directly related to tested subjects. Art, drama and music fall outside of the metrics that determine whether a school is great, acceptable or failing. So, I understand how the cultural field trip may have fallen by the wayside. Of course, this year cultural field trips are an impossibility. So does the art remain hidden? What difference does it make.

THE UNINSPIRED.

Personally, the cultural field trip represented a danger zone for me. I excelled at academics, but could not draw a straight line or carry a tune in a bucket. The lesson planning around cultural field trips meant that we were going to spend a few days switching our focus from things I was good at to things I was terrible at. In other words, I preferred that the art stay hidden.

Art supplies were never high on my priority list.
Photo via Pixabay

I resisted the art classes just as much as those who struggled with math resisted long division. If you do not “get it” you ignore it. The way the world works, no one much cares about children who ignore art, but it punishes children who ignore long division. That dichotomy makes the world a poorer place because it devalues the artist.

Until recently, the thoughts of cultural field trips had faded into the distant recesses of my mind. Everyday life was about being “productive.” If you were productive enough, you could send your child to a fancy private school that still would make time to see the hidden art. Or perhaps, you could schedule a quick trip to the hiding place on a vacation. Fine with me.

THE ART REVEALS ITSELF.

Over the last two years, M’Lissa and I have explored a good portion of rural Texas on our quest to visit all 254 counties. In small town after small town, we noticed murals of professional quality. This was art that was not hidden. But why?

Some of the murals are commercial in nature, advertising the store on which the murals are painted. For a city dweller that makes sense on the surface. If you are the only hardware store in the county, however, how much extra business do you get by hiring someone to paint a mural advertising that fact? Not much is my guess.

An historical mural in Breckenridge, Texas.
Photo by Steve Howen

Other art is historical. One of my favorite murals is the large painting adorning a wall in Breckenridge, Texas celebrating the high school’s football prowess during the 1950’s. Quick math tells me that the stars of those teams are now in their late 80s. Throughout Texas, you can see what amounts to ancient history on the side of the five and dime. The more I looked for these murals, the more I became enamored with them. I have no connection to Breckenridge, Texas or to most of the hundreds of towns we have visited but still the unhidden art makes me happy.

It is really that simple. Art evokes emotion and changes our perspective. I would have learned these things on my cultural field trips to the places the art was hidden, if I had not feared my inadequacies. Maybe I have just grown old enough to get over that fear, but my main point is that for some reason unknown to me the art has become more accessible.

HOMETOWN ART.

Last Sunday drove home these points with particular force. M’Lissa and I challenged ourselves to a particularly long walk that took us through downtown Waco, across the river to the developing Elm Street neighborhood in East Waco and back up the Brazos river by way of Cameron Park. Normally, we would be all talk about the week’s events and planning for the holidays to come.

We started to notice, however, all the fantastic art Waco had to offer. I love Waco, but have never confused our city with New York or San Francisco for cultural opportunities. But our art is no longer hidden. It is everywhere and if you pay attention to it, the art will speak to you.

This art is definitely not hidden. One of my favorite Waco murals. It is descriptive to say the least.
Photo by Steve Howen

The expensive stuff is the series of remarkable animal structures along the river. In the space of a mile one witnesses a true sculpture garden with a beautiful backdrop. I have already explained my distinct lack of qualifications for art criticisms, so I will not try. What the sculptures did for me was to humanize the animals, make it easier to see them as equals on our planet that deserve to share the world with us. Most are playful and bring a smile to your face. The kids surround the sculptures are joyful and carefree; so was I.

THE HOMETOWN ARTIST.

The murals of East Waco emphasized the fact that people can be proud of a community even if the median income does not scream “success.” East Waco is developing, which is great. The murals add color and charm while tying the development to the history of the neighborhood.

Tru Jamaica restaurant displays it East Waco roots through the use of Ira Watkins' murals.
Photo by Steve Howen

Nowhere was that powerful combination more apparent than the Tru Jamaica restaurant. The diner was closed on Sunday, but as we were admiring the murals that adorned the side of the building the owner treated us to an explanation. He had rejuvenated the business in January of this year (terrific timing) and asked the original artist to refresh the building’s exterior and interior murals.

It turns out that the artist, Ira Watkins, grew up in the same East Waco neighborhood his murals now populate. After a difficult life, Ira recently garnered significant renown as the lead Artist in Residence at the Hunters Point Shipyard Art Collective in the Bay Area. Watkins’ work at Tru Jamaica suggested a relaxed atmosphere were family and friends enjoy good food and good people. From our discussions with the owner, Watkins hit the nail on the head.

Ira Watkins' art is not hidden. You can find it throughout East Waco.
A portion of an Ira Watkins’ mural. Photo by Steve Howen.

OPEN YOUR EYES.

I feared the cultural field trip, but someone raced off the bus seeing the world differently. Their urge to create and to express was ancient and powerful, yet they have given voice to that urge in unique and transformative ways. At a time we we struggle so mightily to find common ground, the creators remind us that there is a starting place. We are all humans. Take a few minutes to look around your town or city to find the art. It no longer hides, it is there for all of us. All you have to do is open your eyes.

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