BROOKLYN, N.Y. (WOMENSENEWS)–It is a cold, blustery Saturday and in the hours before a blizzard is set to begin, people in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn are moving quickly. Most carry heavy bags and seem to be rushed. But as they approach the corner of Greene and Nostrand avenues, they look up and for a fleeting instant, you can spot a smile.
What the harried walkers can’t help noticing is “When Women Pursue Justice,” a vibrant 3,300-square-foot mural that applauds 90 U.S. women.
Shirley Chisholm, the seven-term Congresswoman who represented the neighborhood from 1969 through 1983, is the star of the scene. The woman who ran for president in 1972 is shown riding a bright-orange horse and waving a banner that reads “A Catalyst for Change”
In this largely African American community, Chisholm’s memory as an “unbossed and unbought” politician and fierce advocate for low and moderate-income people continues to inspire residents. The faces of other women are painted on a bright-red backdrop, adding a splash of militant sass to an otherwise dreary landscape.
Jane Weissman is administrator of the mural project.
“We didn’t have a magic number we wanted to paint,”
says Weissman. “We came up with women we thought of as movement leaders, then we came up with ancestors, then we started naming contemporary activists. We asked for suggestions from everyone we knew and ended up with 90.”
The mural includes Emma Goldman, the anarchist labor and birth control advocate who was deported to Russia in 1919. There’s also Clara Lemlich, an organizer of Lower East Side garment workers in the early 20th century, and anti-slavery and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth. Others on the wall are drawn from more recent history and include Dorothy Day, who co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement in the 1930s, and poet Audre Lorde, poet and author of the famous dictum, “Your silence will not protect you.”
Women Rose from Many Arenas
Living women include Angela Davis, who emerged as a prominent activist in the 1960s and ran for vice president on the Communist ticket. There’s also Dolores Huerta, leader of the United Farm Workers, and Amy Goodman, whose “Democracy Now!” program on Pacifica Radio has for a decade covered left-wing politics.
There’s also Gold Star Mother Cindy Sheehan, whose anti-Iraq war activism took center stage last summer when she created Camp Casey near Crawford, Texas.
The idea for “When Women Pursue Justice” came from artist Janet Braun-Reinitz and administrator Weissman.
Colleagues since 1987, the pair met when Weissman was working at Project Green Thumb, a New York City group that encourages gardening and neighborhood beautification.
“We sent out a request for proposals to put murals and sculptures in some of the gardens,” Weissman recalls.
“Janet had been painting murals since the early 1980s.
She applied and she got a grant to do one. Then, in the early 1990s she and I worked together on a mural project for kids.” The pair is presently collaborating on a book about New York City murals that will be published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2007.
It was in 2003, however, while researching and writing about New York City’s Pathfinder Mural–a six-story tribute to left-wing writers that was painted on the Socialist Workers Party’s Pathfinder Press building in 1989–that the idea for a women’s mural produced by women struck Braun-Reinitz.
“The Pathfinder Mural was so smart and coherent,”
Weissman said. “When we looked at it for the book, it inspired us.”
As the idea began to gel, Braun-Reinitz took responsibility for finding artists and creating a design while Weissman began to raise funds, obtain required permits and search for a suitable location.
Women Painted in Their Own Styles
In late 2004, she and Braun-Reinitz invited a group of female artists they knew, or knew of, to discuss the idea together. “We told everyone that we had no money but we had a plan in which each woman would create a panel, in whatever style she wanted, using brush or spray, demonstrating her take on the particular person she was painting,” says Braun-Reinitz. “We’d put it up and I’d create a design for the piece to fit into.”
After getting an enthusiastic response from the artists, Braun-Reinitz and Weissman began scouting locations in Chisholm’s Brooklyn district. After several months they got the go-ahead from the owners of a privately-owned building.
Last spring, 13 professional artists, five art students from a local high school and 30 volunteers spent two months–July and August–painting the building. Each artist chose whom to paint and determined how to paint her.
Kristi Pfister, an art teacher and long-time muralist, chose Dorothy Day. “My husband’s family had once hosted Day in St. Louis, plus we live on Staten Island and Day lived on the eastern shore of the borough, so I felt a connection,” she says.
Braun-Reinitz painted Chisholm, a woman she admires for her outspoken advocacy on behalf of the disenfranchised.
Celebrations and Challenges
Weissman sees the mural as posing a challenge to current-day women’s rights activists. “It is a celebratory mural and people feel good when they see it,” she says. “But it is also true that while it celebrates what we’ve done, it reminds us how much organizing and political work we still have to do for women’s equality and social justice to become real. The mural is intended to motivate viewers to become active.
So many of the women depicted have been forgotten. We hope the mural will bring them back to their proper place in history.”
“Being a community muralist is about collaboration,”
muses Braun-Reinitz. “When we were painting ‘When Women Pursue Justice,’ one of the most striking things was how many people recognized that the mural was being painted by an all-woman crew. Together, we acknowledged this as being important.”
Right now, the pair is attempting to raise $30,000 to pay outstanding mural expenses and create an exhibition catalog with short biographies of the 90 women on the wall.
In the long term, Braun-Reinitz says there will always be more to paint.
“I’d love to do a mural on choice or the history of birth control,” Braun-Reinitz says. “Or a positive look at women as single parents. Or an anti-war mural with all the mothers of the dead rising up. There are many, many more women’s murals to be painted.”
Eleanor J. Bader is a teacher, writer and activist whose work appears regularly in Z Magazine, Library Journal and The Brooklyn Rail.