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Story of the Mural 47 in Suva, Fiji

The walls around St. Giles Rehabilitation Center were colorful.  Sometime in the past, a local artist spent a few months painting the place with a few of the residents.  He worked much the same way I do.  He planned the walls and had his volunteers add the color.  Unfortunately, I know what time and elements do to murals.  I don’t really want to think about it.  I leave my masterpieces, and in my mind they stay that way. 

But, they don’t.

Many of the walls at the hospital need cleaned up and repainted.  Unfortunately for me, I didn’t have months to stay in Fiji.  Only one area could be painted and it needed to be a spot that didn’t need a lot of preparation work.  So, the entrance to the Occupational Therapy unit was selected.  It was a fun area to hang out and paint.  Food was prepared in the area (always something I like) and there were sessions when residents gathered to sing.  Golden oldies appeared to be a favorite.  I can’t really say that I ever expected to hear John Denver’s “Country Roads” sung in Fiji.  It took me home.

Usually, I talk to administrators to get ideas for the mural.  Well, the person in charge was sick for the first several days of the project.  I got no input from the center.  I had to pick the brains of a few other Fijian friends to get ideas for a local theme to the mural. 

The mural wove around windows and doors of a patio area.  Hopefully, it would be protected from sun and rains.  I used tapa cloth designs, a local fabric made from mulberry tree bark, to frame the mural and hold it together.  My tapa design had three rows.  The first was made up of individual stripes that I painted.  The second row was made with circles and applied with a stamp.  But, my college artists really wanted the third row to be made like a traditional tapa cloth with a stencil.  I said if they created the stencil, they could have a go at it.  I loved the authentic touch and that the kids wanted to take ownership with their own ideas.  It added an extra day of painting the mural, but I thoroughly enjoyed that time with my crew.

For the rest of the design, on either side of the door was half of the national crest.  The other wall had the letters spelling “FIJI”, but as usual, I kind of hide the lettering in the art.  I love the “ah hah” moment when people discover it.  Inside those letters included a kava ceremony, a waving palm and turtle, a rugby player and a ukulele.  Colorful accents included the fragrant frangipani flower and the red hibiscus.

Painters for the project came from a unique pool of volunteers.  Patients and nursing staff at St. Giles were very eager to participate.  In addition, there were volunteers from the U.S. Embassy and local art students attending Fiji National University.  And, I’m very happy to say, three painters came all the way from the village of Kuku where I spent my weekends.  It was a very fun mix of people who laughed a lot as we create one more mural for another worthy cause.

I really like working with artists and letting them add their own touches to the mural.  On this particular mural, I told artists to create a Fijian shirt design and blend colors for a sunset and the frangipani flowers.  I kind of take a little pride in the fact that it works so well.  I don’t think every artist could share ownership of their mural design.  And, whenever I see that someone has the ability, I want to give them a chance to shine. 

Well . . . most of the time

If you’ve ever painted a mural with me, you probably know that I save the eyes till last.  It usually drives people crazy, children and adults alike.  But, for me it’s like dessert.  I save it for the very last and I look forward to that moment.  It’s when the characters come alive.  Well, on this particular mural, one of my artists took interest in the eyes and he had no idea about my tradition. While he carefully added the eyes to each and every face, I had a horrible argument going on inside my head.  “Do I let the young artist flourish and do something that he can obviously do well?” or “Do I tell him that those faces are my babies and nobody does it quite the way I do it?”

It really was a struggle.  I really wanted to paint those eyes.  I tried to be rational, which I’m not always good about.  I know I looked calm, no matter what was going on inside my head.  But, this was really not easy for me.  In the end, I tried to convince myself that I shouldn’t be so petty and I should let the other artist shine. 

I never really totally convinced myself.

However, I learned my lesson from this.  From now on, right from the start, I’m telling every volunteer who paints with me about “dessert”.  Yep, those babies are mine and I plan to continue savoring the moment.
Copyright 2016 by Phillip Martin All rights reserved.