There’s a purple house in Ithaca on the corner of Clinton and Plain, adorned with yellow sunflowers and a beautiful mural of Toni Morrison. It was painted by local muralist and painter Maryam Adib shortly after Morrison passed away last year.
I think of that mural from time to time: it’s a symbol of hope that reappears in my head and even more frequently in the recent weeks leading up to the election.
Morrison famously wrote in her essay, “No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear,” published in the Nation: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear.”
Her words encapsulate the importance of art in civic engagement and political action. In a time during which multiple crises have intersected in our public sphere in the most visible and turbulent ways, the work of artists has never been more important in helping us to reimagine a better future.
At the center of this growing cross-talk between local artists and political engagement in the community is Ithaca Murals, which was founded in 2016 with the goal of decolonizing public space and has adopted “an inclusion model to challenge Eurocentric patriarchal capitalism.”
“I was inspired by visiting the Mission District in San Francisco. I saw the murals as a part of resisting the gentrification of the neighborhood and trying to maintain that cultural sovereignty,” said Caleb R. Thomas, cofounder of Ithaca Murals. “That ultimately inspired me to organize murals here as a way for people to take up space with their passions and values.”
Local art and murals have been at the center of our long overdue national reckoning with racial injustice. On Aug. 22, a Black Lives Matter mural was painted in Downtown Ithaca by community members. On Oct. 4th the mural was vandalized to censor the word “Black.” The following day, community members congregated to restore the mural.
Public art in Ithaca has not come without backlash. Defacement is common with many of the public art projects in Ithaca. Just this past September, local artist Lisa Orinda’s painting of an electric box was also vandalized with anti-Semitic symbols and rhetoric.
“When they go low, we go high,” Orinda said, describing how she went downtown the night her artwork was vandalized and spray-painted over the hateful symbols with hearts.
Despite backlash, the murals have become an important part of the Ithaca culture: Their vibrant accents and bold colors personify our changing space to reflect the eclectic voices of our city’s diverse community.
“If you’re growing up in Ithaca, murals become part of your fabric and who you are,” Orinda said.
In typical Ithaca fashion, this month Ithaca Murals teamed up with Ithaca Hummus to help #GetOutTheVote by providing local artists with funding for murals, posters and public art. The cross-collaboration is aimed at encouraging civic engagement between now and Election Day on Tuesday, Nov. 3.
On Sunday, Oct. 25, Orinda completed a mural at the South Hill School with the help of her family. “Vote … for our children and our children’s children,” the mural reads, imploring the Ithaca community to exercise their civic duty as a model for their own children.
Orinda added that her mural at South Hill School sparked important conversations between children and their families about voting.
As a continuation of the Ithaca Murals and Ithaca Hummus voting series this week, self-taught local illustrator Yen Ospina is working on a Lady Liberty mural in Press Bay on, with a one-word message: “Vote.”
Each of these murals illustrates the important role that art retains in political expression and cultivating community dialogue and action across barriers. Under an administration in which walls have been invoked to incite division and hate, the Ithaca Murals serve as a powerful manifestation of resilience and resistance to an increasingly polarized climate.
The murals remind us not only of our civic duty to vote but also of the importance of speaking truth to power through art and the written word, especially now as forces of hatred and violence threaten those who dare to speak.
Shriya Perati is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected] Thought Experiments runs alternate Thursdays this semester.