A UC Davis alumna and artist has created a chalk mural at the Imagining America offices on campus. Here is her reflection on what it was like to create this community mural, one of many she has created in the region, including on campus when she was a student.
Talking Heart at UC Davis: A Reflection
“Talking Heart” is a chalkboard mural I painted live at the People’s State of the Union, a storytelling event hosted by Imagining America at University of California, Davis, on the afternoon of Friday, Feb. 2. This annual event, held in concert with the grassroots arts organization US Department of Arts and Culture, invites people across the United States to define the “State of the Union” — near the time of the presidential speech by the same name — in story circles, where they share experiences from their own lives.
For this community mural, like much of my work in public places, I invited people to inspire the project by sharing their own stories and drawings. Given a safe space to reflect and imagine, people are amazingly willing to jump in and share their vulnerable bits. Then I puzzle out how to fit the picture pieces together into a united whole, honoring the images shared by seeking common threads and building visual connections between individual drawings and stories. In this way “Talking Heart” both celebrates our strengths and recognizes our vulnerabilities. It is a playful portrait for heavy times, to show that united, we are more than the sum of our parts.
Creating a safe space to discuss mental health
In the last few years I’ve come to understand mental health as a core to the state of my personal union of family, friends, and community. With the stigma surrounding mental health, it can be difficult to talk about directly with those we love — and even more difficult to explore and support colleagues and neighbors in public life.
I see the long shadow of mental illness in my family, my neighborhood, and my nation. I believe we are all injured, or touched by illness, in one way or another, whether we choose to admit to it or not. Unfortunately, when we refuse to speak about it, we cannot truly see or support one another. So how do we create a safe space to explore these issues?
Art allows us to explore taboo subjects
Art allows us to speak in symbols and explore taboos, so it was mental health I chose to bring to Imagining America — what I like to think of as the “State of the Heart.” Rather than focusing on illness, I chose to portray our collective capacity to heal, imagine, and build supportive communities.
Healing involves developing new ways of seeing, moving beyond the stagnation of depression, anxiety, and negative thinking to re-imagine our life stories. I find it helpful in this work to consider ancestral views on health, including the heart, the spirit, and chi. Making pictures also helps, as symbols get past our tendencies to over-analyze and the struggle to find just the right words.
Attendees draw on their feelings at Imagining America event
In “Talking Heart,” I asked attendees to use marker and pencil to depict the state of their hearts — exploring themes of support, resilience, and spirit. People were generous with the honesty of their drawings, and I worked my way through a pile of 30-plus drawings, integrating elements of each. The mural surprised me with its joy, portraying what pulls us up from the depths of despair, what we long to be and feel, and how we can support one another.
I chose colored chalk on blackboard as my medium. I started painting with chalk two years ago, when my dear friend and fellow UC Davis alum Nico Linesch passed away, tragically young. I’d been out of touch with Nico for a few years, so when he died I ached for one last time to check in, to talk, to catch up. I am an artist, so I pray with paint, communicating in the way I know.
I wrote and drew for him, until I had nothing more to say, in big letters on a giant blackboard that is a parking lot, and slowly watched the sky rain away my prayers.
Chalk is an unexpectedly powerful medium, especially for those of us who grew up writing lessons on blackboards. The smell is reminiscent of childhood, the colors are strong and vibrant, and the surface is instantly accessible for revisiting and reworking. There’s no waiting for paint to dry or brushes to clean. For this reason, it has grown to be part of my spiritual practice — it offers a way to access the subconscious, to not take myself too seriously, and to be profoundly rooted in the now.
Coming back to campus
It’s sweet to come back to campus to paint a mural, since my first murals, as a graduate student, were painted at the Arboretum and Center for Child and Family. I studied plant biology and community development at UC Davis, always looking for ways to integrate arts into my academic pursuits. Now as a professional artist, I integrate the many skills I learned at school — asking open-ended questions, listening deeply, doing site research, practicing botanical drawing, and portraying animal anatomy. My parents often discouraged me from studying the arts as they were worried about my job prospects, but it’s difficult to keep an artist away from paint. As it turns out, my training in botany and community development gave me a unique niche in the arts world, as I can speak the language of both scientists and social scientists, and thereby act as a bridge to the arts.
“Talking Heart” is on display now through January 2019 at the Imagining America office at 207 Third St., Suite 120, Davis. Danielle Fodor is a painter and social practice artist working in the Davis and Sacramento area. She earned a bachelor’s degree in plant biology (1999) and MS in community development (2012), both at UC Davis. Her work can be seen at www.daniellefodor.com and www.thepillbug.com.