The current economy hasn't been friendly to the arts, but Michael Schwartz says that despite the challenges, he remains positive about arts—including his own work in community-building and mural arts through the Tucson Arts Brigade. Schwartz works throughout the country, but his heart is in Tucson. For more information about Schwartz and his work, visit www.MichaelBSchwartz.com, communityarts.blogspot.com or bronxwashmuralproject.blogspot.com.
When did you come to Tucson?
I came out here in 1988, because I went to graduate school. ... My connection to Tucson was photos of my father who went to high school (here) during the war years. I grew up with these photos, thinking Tucson was this little Santa Fe barrio town with a university. This is a really interesting place. In coming to Tucson, I got involved with community groups and issues, using the arts as a way to talk about these issues without diminishing the intrinsic value of the arts.
What were your first projects?
We started out doing chalk murals during Downtown Saturday Nights. ... The kids would decide what to do—it was all as volunteers at this point. ... We did a collective poem, and then we documented it really carefully as a mural. But murals have lives, and walls have lives, and that one left us.
What year was that?
It was 1988-1989. It was a shame that one was painted out. ... People driving by or riding on the Amtrak train would see it. We got postcards from people who did some research to find out who did it. One guy's (card) said, "We were wondering who did it and thought this must be a cool town." Another mural that doesn't exist anymore that should still be with us was Leslie Marmon Silko's snake mural (off Stone Avenue and Speedway Boulevard). That was part of her writing process in writing Almanac of the Dead.
What's your current project?
The Bronx Wash Mural. At a recent paint night, we had more than 25 people show up—neighbors, people meeting each other for the first time. ... Then you get, "When's the next one? When's the next one?" At the Bronx Wash Mural, the participants design everything. I organized a series of design meetings and reached out to kids, seniors, everyone living in the neighborhood.
Part of the funding for this project came from PRO Neighborhoods. Will you continue to collaborate?
Obviously, they would like to do a lot more, but they just got their funding cut. I have a paintbrush-ready list of places from people who have called and said they want to do a project.
What's next on that list?
The next one is in the Miracle Manor neighborhood, but we are waiting to hear on funding. We had applied to the Arizona Commission on the Arts, but their funding was just cut 42 percent.
The economy has made it difficult for everyone.
But we're working on it. On May 12, I was invited to the White House (as) part of a group of artists who work in social justice. ... We're talking about how to continue participatory arts and civic engagement in the arts. ... It's worth being funded, and it creates jobs, first of all. The stimulus dollars are going somewhere, and I'd love to see some of those dollars coming here. There are a million blank walls in Tucson that are ready for a mural.
How do you make a living doing this?
I go from project to project. ... I work a lot nationally, and I do some writing. I have some projects in Philadelphia, and another in New Jersey. New Jersey happens to have the first program funded from stimulus dollars. We worked on three murals. But it's been slim pickings lately. I try to do about 10 of them a year, large or small, and that's what I've been doing for about 10 years, along with some teaching. Quite honestly, I don't know what's coming up next. ... That's part of the excitement.
How do we ride out this economy?
My sense is that we need to be looking at self-sufficiency. ... Look at the resources we have around us; talk to the people, the elders, the traditionalists. There's an elder I've talked to who lives in Barrio Anita. He told me it used to be if there's nothing to do, you'd make adobe bricks. You could use bricks to barter, or you'd get hired for a project. In some ways, those of us in the arts have always been there. We've always hovered at or below poverty. ... We know how to survive in tough economic conditions.