MURAL 35 in Gjirokaster, Albania

My friend Scott and his wife were a few of the ignored Gringos at the Mexican rodeo that was dedicated to the "world famous artist" who attended that evening - me.  He's also helped paint four of my murals so far.  He knows firsthand how well I was treated in Piedras Negras and said, "I pity the fool who has you paint your next mural."  (You have to be old enough to know Mr. T. to appreciate the humor.)  Well, when Vita emailed and said it was time to return to Gjirokaster for another mural, I knew there was nobody to pity and nothing to worry about.  It might be my second time to paint a mural in Gjirokaster, but it was my fourth visit to Albania.  Who goes there four times?  I guess that would be me.

Albania is one of the poorest countries in Europe.  But, over the years, it has grown into a destination location for European tourism.  I, of course, smugly take pride in the fact that I was way ahead of the curve on this.  Twenty years ago when I first came to Gjirokaster, quite by accident, there were no guide books on the country.  My taxi driver had a business card that said, “We speak English.”  It was all I needed to know when looking for a place to stay.  At the time, nobody imagined that Vita and Haxhi would run a guesthouse that is now recognized as the best in all of Albania.  I’ve always considered it the best in the world.

Everyone needs a Vita in their life.  I called her my personal manager.  Not only did she find my wall to paint at Shkolla (School) 9 Vjeçare, she knew how to handle any problem that popped up.  If she didn’t like something, she let it be known in rapid-fire Albanian.  Everyone listens to Vita.  Problems are solved.

The director of the school wanted a similar mural to the previous one I painted at another school in Gjirokaster.  They wanted a view of the castle that dominates the city landscape as well as some people in traditional clothing and the quote, "Gjirokastra ime" which means "My Gjirokaster".  Okay, so the theme wasn’t hard to come up with.  However, I was very pleased with the sketch and mural.  It seems that I have gotten better with practice.  I am much happier with the new design.

I made it clear from the start that I prefer to work with six students at a time.  It keeps the whole process sane – and I like sane.  It really didn’t happen that way.  I suggested that six students take hourly shifts.  Well, the second shift kids showed up and the first shift kids didn’t want to leave.  The number of painters swelled, sanity slipped, lots of kids had the opportunity to paint, and I went home very tired.  Vita assured me that a visiting guest artist from America is reason for a little chaos.  Things like that just don’t normally happen in Albania. Well, I learned my lesson.  My mama didn’t raise no fool.  I brought fewer brushes to school after that.

It continually surprises me how fast color on the mural goes up.  One day brings a remarkable change.  On day two the main coloring is usually complete.  But, on those two days, any and all painters are welcome no matter how inexperienced.  That means on day three I need more skilled painters to do a lot of touching up.  Well, there was no shortage of help.  I had painters throughout the school day and volunteers willing to stay after school and come back on Saturday.  In one week’s time, the wall was completely – and successfully, I might add - transformed.

Upon completion of the mural, a new standard was set.  And, like I said, everyone needs a Vita.  She had two, count ‘em, two television stations show up with teams to “interview” me.  However, neither of them gave what I call interviews.  The microphone was pushed up in front of me and I was told to talk. When I stopped speaking, my part of the interview ended.  Then, Vita took over, in more rapid-fire Albanian.  I have no idea what she said, but she really had an awful lot to say.

Actually, a third television station was invited.  They said they would come, but they were a no-show.  We didn’t wait around for them.  Vita assured me that two interviews was enough.  A new standard was set.  There was no need to set the bar so impossibly high that nobody could ever match it.

As it turned out, I think I did my job well and taught the students how to paint a mural.  There was another wall at the school that just screamed for a painting.  They had the paint left over from my project.  They had students who knew how to work together and paint carefully.  They had an artist among them who could design something for the wall.  They had the confidence to do it all.  So, while I packed up and headed back to Ohio, the project continued without me.  That’s really how it should be.