By Chad Onianwa
“It was never just about art” says Connie Fiorella-Fitzpatrick over a beer. “It’s about community engagement and appreciation…”
We’re sitting at the hightop counter at Limestone Pizza in downtown Lawrence, discussing the mural project she’s leading. Behind a short glass barrier a young pizzaiolo tosses flour then kneads and spins dough – just feet away from our faces.
Wak’ó Mujeres Phụ nữ Women Mural: Stories of Kansan Women of Color (‘WOC Mural’ for short) is a public mural project situated in downtown Lawrence, Kansas, on the southern walls of the city’s Public Library.
Each woman depicted in the mural is inspired by a woman of color from the Lawrence community. Fiorella-Fitzpatrick and fellow artist Marylin Hinojosa began the mural project by collecting stories from and about local women of color, with the help of a team of volunteers from different backgrounds— all also women of color.
Approaching the library from Kentucky Street, you can see the mural. Following a path along the library walls, you see flowers, books, a gradient of vibrant hues and a geometric landscape grounding lively bodies and faces— some laughing, some stern, others thoughtful— singing and playing in the trees and water. These peaceful scenes are woven together to form a celebration of life.
“There’s no hierarchy. It’s about representation,” Fiorella-Fitzpatrick says about the women who are depicted in the mural. As a mark of respect, only the names of elders appear on the mural – but part of the its beauty lies in the fact that it also acknowledges the stories of generations of ordinary women and girls of color who have called Lawrence home.
“Whether you’ve done amazing things, have a PhD, are an artist, or just a mom, that aspect of representation in race is really unique. Some of them have just lived. But what is important is what comes with ‘just living’ and being a woman of color… And those kinds of stories are usually not accessible to begin with.” she says.
After all, it was a lack of similar stories seen around Lawrence that initially inspired Fiorella-Fitzpatrick to begin the project. She was born in Peru and migrated to Washington D.C. before making her way to Kansas, so had a newcomer’s perspective on the community. The concept for the mural had been floating around her conversations for a few years before approaching Imani Wadud, a fellow D.C. area transplant, who then became the mural’s Project Research Mentor and helped to shift it from idea to collaborative reality.
“I was already looking for more generative and sustainable ways to support our local communities of color, specifically Black girls and Womxn of Color.” Wadud says on her initial interest in the WOC Mural project. Wadud and Fiorella-Fitzpatrick bonded over many things, particularly their passions for grassroots social justice initiatives and experiences with radical, collective art-making.
“[Connie and I] clearly had immediate overlapping interests and agreed that some sort of intervention was in order in Lawrence: one that could potentially bring about healing, expression, visibility, and education for and among Womxn of Color in the area – while ultimately benefiting our larger Lawrence community by expanding and, in many ways, redefining its commitment to diversity.” Wadud says.
However, the process was not straightforward. Even after forming a clear vision, collecting oral histories, assembling a dedicated crew and acquiring funding, some of the mural team’s most significant obstacles were destined to take shape inside City Hall.
Because the intended location of the mural was on the exterior walls of the library—a publicly owned building— the mural team was required to seek approval from the City Commission of Lawrence. Over the course of four months, Fiorella-Fitzpatrick, Hinojosa, Wadud and the rest of their team attended multiple sessions at Lawrence City Hall, to present their case for the mural project and seek permissions necessary to proceed.
Attending the first session, you could see the support they had in the number of bodies crowding City Hall. Dozens of people filled seats, lined the hearing room walls, and stuffed the lobby. They had shown up to both hear the proceedings and to voice their individual support for the mural as city commissioners raised their points of concern. A few key issues that arose were the acquisition of funds for future maintenance, community support for the mural, approval from the library’s board, how this mural would include and represent the larger community, and the way in which the mural would interact visually with the design of Lawrence’s award winning Public Library.
An unexpectedly long process, the City Hall meetings proved draining for everyone involved. They tested not only the dedication but also the physical and emotional endurance of the WoC Mural team and their families.
“Everything could have stopped.” Fiorella-Fitzpatrick says. “But one of the biggest things I’ve learned from this project is that my fears are not her fears, nor are her fears mine.. When I’ve been in pressured situations where my train of thought has been altered by stress or demand, there has been someone else who was there saying ‘No, keep going!’ – and we’ve all done that for each other.”
Wadud echoes these sentiments and emphasizes how the process only strengthened their resolve. “We have grown so much together in what turned out to be a much longer process than initially predicted.” Wadud says. “Together, we learned to persevere through many hardships, all of which made us value the WOC Mural and all of the unseen labor more and more, long before it actually materialized.”
While the points articulated by City Hall Commissioners demonstrate the bureaucratic necessity of this process, the symbolic nature of these sessions, the language used, and the identities of the parties involved were not lost on the mural team or their supporters — and there were many who spoke up about this when given the microphone.
“When people use words like ‘larger community’, ‘including everyone’… – coming from a racialized, classist lens that’s code for ‘including more white people’… What sounds like compromise are actually dog whistles for keeping communities of color under control and under surveillance.” says Lawrence resident and mural supporter Jameelah Jones at the July 10 city hall meeting.
“I’m confused what people mean by ‘patrons’ or ‘larger community’…. people of color are patrons and users of the library. People of color are part of the larger community… Whether or not people choose to call us minorities or marginalized… or whatever word makes is seem like we’re smaller than the white rich public… we are also a part of the community.” she continues.
Fiorella-Fitzpatrick acknowledges the intensity of those days in front of the Commissioners, but she’s satisfied by the eventual success of the mural team and those who came out to support them.
“Yes, there are those power dynamics [in City Hall]…” Fiorella-Fitzpatrick says. “But the beautiful thing at the moment is realizing that we [women of color] are the people, right? And in a group, even more so. And with support we should be able to shape our city and change our community.”
Whose Streets? Our Streets.
Imagine walking past the Library earlier this year, on a Saturday afternoon in late summer. The southern walls are brightly painted with panels of color, solid lines and shapes, characters yet to take full form. It’s the first community painting day, and anyone interested has been invited to show up and help. Members of the mural’s core design team direct people where to go, and tell them what needs to be painted in what colors. Encouraging yet cautious parents guide their children’s brushes. And, despite the heat, the scene attracts many participants and bystanders.
Part of what makes the Women of Color Mural such a transformative project for the Lawrence community is its foundation in public accessibility. The mural team’s youngest member is just three years old.
It’s endearing to see how Fiorella-Fitzpatrick, Hinojosa, and Wadud are dedicated to building community through hands-on experiences. Beginning with the open nomination process from which the stories inspiring the mural were drawn, through its location on the library walls—a building centered on public learning and growth— the invitation to participate and support is wide open. For Fiorella-Fitzpatrick, being successful in such a largely community-based project means you must acknowledge and respect each others differences. “You have to be so adaptive to everything. Not everyone is an artist. There’s cultural barriers and everyone has different experiences. Even as women of color, that’s not a singular identity. We’re all different.” she says.
Finally seeing those differences reflected on the walls of the community allows children, friends, and family to witness something beautiful emerging from their struggle. Documenting the process from start to finish also preserves their history of participation – much as the team has created digital archives in the library to capture the stories of the women featured in the mural. At the end of all the hard work is a sense of being seen and being celebrated.
Fiorella-Fitzpatrick also shares a sense of freedom that came from painting on the library walls through long days and on into the night.
“It’s a really unique position to do a public mural. If it wasn’t public art, you’d be asked to leave— even more so as a person of color. Claiming space in that way is important.” she says.
For Wadud this serves as a template for future innovation “The project has allowed for me to explore how creative undertakings like this one can serve our communities: allowing us a bit closer to developing our own freedom practices by us, for us!”
Reflecting on those nights painting with the mural team, Fiorella-Fitpatrick sees it similarly.
“We have full permission, nobody can stop us. We’re just having our snacks with our children, doing our thing. And it feels good because it really is our streets. We finally can feel that… and it’s not something you get to feel often.”
In an email interview, project lead Marylin Hinojosa added: “The project was a huge endeavor with a lot of great Women of Color providing time and energy. For me the role of lead artist was a temporary title that I knew would be irrelevant as we helped these women hone and own their creativity […] that came with the process of creating a collective public artwork.’
“Every day we were out there little girls of all colors and religions came up to us and asked about the project, and commented on how much they loved it.”
“They gave us momentum, they gave us fuel and courage to make it the best mural we could make.”
“[T]he whole roster of design team members […] are now the artists who have developed and grown out of this incredible project.”
Sierra Two Bulls
Yueyang (Sally) Jiang
Mónica Carvajal Regidor
Iris Nicole Cliff
* girls under the age of 13.