Dowell Lecture Examines Feminist Aspects of Community Murals


In seven years of studying the Mural Arts Program in Philadelphia, Maureen O'Connell had never really considered the feminist dimension of her work. "I was surprised," she said, before correcting that oversight by delivering the 2013 Elvira M. Dowell '36 Lecture at Romita Auditorium March 5.

O'Connell said she was grateful to the Women's Studies Program for the invitation to speak at The College of New Rochelle because "it's an opportunity to think more explicitly about that dimension of my research." The associate professor of theology at Fordham University is the author of "If These Walls Could Talk: Community Muralism and the Beauty of Justice," a 2012 book which explores the significance of mural art to poverty-stricken inner-city communities.

The Mural Arts Program was established nearly 30 years ago as an anti-graffiti measure, "to bring beauty into communities." The murals have evolved from just being pretty paintings, O'Connell said -- the materials and messages have expanded -- but the program remains unchanged in one way: "They arise from the everyday experience of largely unheard populations."

O'Connell's research has focused on the sociological and theological aspects of the murals. She notes that a quarter of the 300 applications the program receives each year are from faith-based organizations. Many of the murals feature religious imagery, and are located on or near places of worship. But in her talk, O'Connell set out to show that the murals are also a distinctly feminist way of doing ethics and justice.

Mostly, the murals can be seen as feminist because they do not conform to masculine, patriarchal traditions. The murals that feature what O'Connell called "a lot of God talk," for example, "serve as unexpected sites of theology." Muralism also refuses to conform to the usual black-and-white divisions of society, O'Connell said. "They invite contradiction and ambiguity, more accurately capture the messiness of the human condition." The works use the senses, imagination, fantasy, intuition -- often overlooked in favor of logic, objectivity, and other, more masculine methods of moral reasoning.

O'Connell shows a work called "Born Again," which features the image of a mother holding an infant, to show another link between muralism and feminism. Feminists start from experience, she said, and muralism taps into personal experiences. "It gives women a way of processing their experiences, to make meaning despite their socioeconomic conditions," and transcend those conditions.

The spirit of community and collaboration that is required throughout the process of creating a mural also speaks to its feminist aspects, O'Connell said. The program requires at least 30 residents commit to a project. Once an artist is identified, the community must hold at least three meetings, each with at least a dozen people present. The program seeks to bring together disparate populations, O'Connell said. That means pairing police with inner-city youth; Muslims, Christians, and Jews; or new immigrants and long-time residents, and finding consensus to create "a common beauty, akin to the notion of the common good."

O'Connell concluded that murals are an important addition to public discourse, as we find it more difficult to engage with others. She suggested that we should "say less and create more." Her research has also remindeed her to be aware of her whiteness, and encouraged her to explore why white communities don't have murals. Finally, she said, her study has shown her the importance of community organizing in ethics.

The murals are captivating, O'Connell said, "because I see them as signs of hope -- not blind optimism or wishful thinking." She sees them, quoting the writer Anne Lamott, as "ribbons of fresh air in tight, scary rooms."

(Watch video of the lecture here.)


(Top: Maureen O'Connell discusses mural art in Philadelphia at the Romita Auditorium. Above: Maureen O'Connell chats with Monica Acosta after her lecture.)