On a sunny day in late September, Will Kasso Condry joined Burlington City & Lake Semester for lunch at the Intervale Community Farm. An organic farm might seem like a random place to first meet with an artist whose work covers the urban walls of Trenton, New Jersey, but Will was interested in learning about who we are, and what we value. Together, we enjoyed a meal of local veggies, City Market chicken, and much more. This was the first of many meetings with Will, a graffiti artist who now makes Brandon, Vermont his home. Over the next two months, students got to know Will, learning about his youth and his journey to becoming a community artist. Will got to know BCL students, their personalities and values, what makes them tick, what frustrates them and what brings them together. With this foundation (and some guidance from Jennifer Herrara Condry, Will’s wife and project partner), Will and BCL students created four incredible murals in only a few weeks.
The creation and inspiration for this project was built on our relationships and shared experiences over the entire semester, all of which culminated in a celebratory event held in the Event Hall at the Old North End Community Center in the evening of December 11th.
Our exploration of art and “what art can do” began several weeks ago. Before the Thanksgiving break, BCL students experienced making imperfect art in a series of fun contour drawings, together with BHS faculty and administrators. They visited the Fleming Museums exhibits Resist! Insist! Persist! and Be Strong and Do Not Betray Your Soul. Students also explored public art in Burlington, and considered the role of art for public consumption and the responsibility of artists to their work, and to the community at large. Throughout these experiences, we dove deep into conversations about equity and inclusion with the City, the BSD, and Edmunds Middle School students. These themes were a rich part of the foundational work needed to create murals that now hang in B-Building at Burlington High School.
Art can come in many forms, and what one thing that may seem like art to someone may not seem like art to someone else. I remember going on the art walk downtown with the Walden Project teacher, and he said that same exact thing. Sometimes he looks at an art piece and it speaks to him deeply, while he may look at another piece and wonder how this thing is even art. The most powerful examples of art are when you can look at the piece and it connects to you directly… For example, the picture at the Fleming Museum with the Jordan holding the Walgreens bag made me think about myself and how that could’ve been me in that picture, just by the way he dresses and him being a black man.
Art can be a painting, a statue, or a knitted blanket. All art has different meanings. Art captivates its audience, holding them closer to the personality behind it. The most specific example of this that I can remember is a piece that was in the Fleming museum. It was a picture labeled, “Marching Band”. It was a picture of a high school marching band in their red and white uniforms in the middle of the woods. Instruments in hand, their reflection showing in the river beneath them. This piece caught my eye because of its weird, dreamlike feel. I was sucked into the setting, the sorrowful faces of the band, the bright colors, and the overall emotion of the picture. The meaning behind this picture was for the artist to cope with the tragedy of 9/11. To portray the emotionless, surreal thoughts he was having. Art should be therapy, art should be fun, art should be what art wants to be. Art shouldn’t follow specific rules.
Once we began making art, the process was deep and, at times, tedious. After spending a full day discussing what students wanted the murals to do for them, what the meaning should be, who they were for, and what they could represent, everyone was left questioning the process and frustrated that there was no clear plan. What should these pieces look like? Who was going to work with whom? What role would each student have? An early draft of the design included images of Vermont’s four seasons…but when students revisited that idea, it didn’t feel like it was representative of BCL and BHS. How could we create pieces that truly illustrated inclusion and representation? Students returned to more discussions with Will and Jennifer, and achieved consensus: they wanted to paint some kind of face, or faces, on the blank canvases. After more confusion around grouping of students and artistic abilities, Will sketched a few basic lines of faces on each canvas, gave the students paint and brushes, and they began to create, just as Will had promised.
Here’s how Will described the process and the inspiration from his point of view:
I work in layers, where everything has an intention… When [students] came up with all these details about what they wanted to see, the one thing I kept seeing in my head was a skeleton, a skull. Because the one thing we all have in common is that our skulls are all very similar… Without all the layers, it’s like, if you strip it down to the skull, you couldn’t tell one from the other. So, the idea of these faces were very straightforward, very geometric. [But] you can always add another layer. One layer on top of another… the same way the earth is made… Everything is layers. Think about that. No matter what we do, everything in life is all about layers… [Y]ou got to deal with the layers of the world and the community… that are going to have an influence on the vibe you’re trying to portray.
~ Will Kasso Condry
The rest of the process was magical, as layers of paint were applied, colors were mixed and explored, and stencils and imagery were integrated. Over four days, the artistic process felt more and more natural, and each and every BCL student was engaged and fully committed. The murals speak for themselves! Check them out in the huge stairwell leading from the cafeteria to B-Building.
I went into this mural creation with little or no art background, but quickly came to realize that pure talent is only part of a masterpiece. In reality, positive group dynamics and the evolution of a painting through layers are the most influential contributors.
I want our art to bring a new emotion to the BHS building. I want students to be able to interpret it on their own and draw different feelings from it. I want our art to inspire, and be appreciated in the minds of my peers. I want it to embody what the BHS community is like and have future students be able to relate to it. The school itself will continue to grow, but I want the art to stay true to Burlington no matter how old it is.
Art is always about connection and I want it to connect BHS with the world. I feel like the following questions should be somehow answered in our art piece.
- Where are we in the world?
- Are we small or are we big?
- Do we matter, do we make a difference, can we make a difference, should we make a difference?
Everyone who sees this mural should feel somehow connected… Our art could show the students that they have a voice.
Art is EVERYTHING. I think this because when I think about art I think about any type of unique product that creates feelings and emotions in the viewer. Therefore the effect of art is impossible to predict.
I want our art project to have some kind of impact. It doesn’t have to break the barrier. Not all art has to be controversial. Some art can be just fun and still have a meaningful message behind it. Our project should help inspire students in BHS community and spark creativity.
I want our BCL Community art piece to be colorful, welcoming, and accepting. I think this will make the school atmosphere feel less overwhelming and intimidating. When looking at the art piece I want the students to feel like they are a part of it, and that everyone is welcome and wanted at this school. Lastly, the art should bring color and life into the school. The walls are so bland, and white, color will make it feel more inviting.
I want our art project to spread joy. Joy is on the list of BCL values, and it is one of the simplest things that a community needs to thrive. A more complicated message would not be beneficial, as I think the main audience for our art project is the students. While there are many other communities at BHS, students are the ones who walk the halls the most, and they are who the whole school is really for. In school, students are often forced to reach a predetermined destination, regardless of their own point of view. I think an art piece that leaves things up for interpretation, or up to the imagination, would be liberating, and much more appreciated.
On our last day with Will, students wrote an artist statement. This short piece offers an insight into the process and the meaning of a one-of-a-kind experience.
December 11, 2019
We, the Burlington City & Lake Semester students, spent the Fall Semester of 2019 building community and getting to know Vermont artist, Will Kasso Condry. The goal for the collaboration was to create a memorable mural for our school, Burlington High School. We wanted our mural to honor individual and collective stories with abstract and realistic elements while also using powerful color schemes. Over the course of two weeks, layering paint on four canvases empowered us to create, collaborate, disagree, compromise, synthesize, and produce a unique community art project. Our hope is to make you, the audience, wonder and imagine the present and future identities of an inclusive community.
Thank you Will for the guidance, inspiration, and fun.