We live at a time where we constantly need to justify our worth, and frequently that is through the education and job titles that we are able to obtain.

Many people agree that access to education and opportunities is the beginning to creating equality. They may also agree that those who have the power to write history hold a huge stake in shaping the future. So it is worth going a step further to ask: What types of education are we willing to provide? And to whom? What kind of schooling will go beyond leveling the playing field for job opportunities and give all people the chance to express their values and ingenuity? How can we cultivate not only a qualified workforce, but people who think creatively and holistically, and therefore lead together to make the culture we will become?

Sharon Kilfoy, the arts administrator of Dane Arts Mural Arts (DAMA), has helped to start an interesting program for communities that lack access to the arts and especially for at-risk high school students. Kilfoy is adamant about what DAMA — and creative education at large — means for schools, communities, artists, and the future of education and our economy.

Sharon Kilfoy (right), with Former Centro Hispano Board Board President Gloria Reyes, in front of one of her many Centro Hispano murals that she has painted with Madison-area young people.
Sharon Kilfoy (right), with Former Centro Hispano Board Board President Gloria Reyes, in front of one of her many Centro Hispano murals that she has painted with Madison-area young people.

What does the program mean for schools?

“When I first approached [Dane Arts Director] Mark Fraire, it was because I really believe that mural-making is an effective community-building tool,” Kilfoy tells Madison365. “My main motivation is the youth, those who don’t have access to opportunities. I had worked with several organizations in the county, but because I can only be in one place at a time, I wanted to start this program. We’ve been able to do seven projects in our first year thanks to start-up funding.”

The DAMA muralists have worked with various organizations and prioritize working with high schools.

“I can’t say no to elementary schools,” Kilfoy says, “but we want to reach older students. So, when we agree to work with elementary schools, we do so as long as we can also partner with a high school. We will pair the schools up, like Lindbergh Elementary with Sail East High School. We want to work with high school students because they’re the most at risk. Although it’s wonderful and fun to work with the youngest students, the high school students are the most at risk for not graduating and for getting into drugs. Developmentally, they’re at a time where they’re challenging authority and figuring out who they are while also dealing with the burdens of trauma and poverty.”

Mural making is a tangible medium of expression and art is a good outlet for students’ creativity and self-expression. This is something that any high-school-age student would benefit from, and DAMA specifically focuses on bringing this program to at-risk youth to close the achievement gap.

“There are many links between race, poverty, and crime. Oftentimes, our students are of color,” Kilfoy says. “Madison Metropolitan School District and other administrative staff are in agreement that these are the kids who fall through the cracks. There are very few alternative high school programs that offer art and music and these are the ones that need it the most.

“The biggest thing is showing up. If you’re there so you get to work on the mural, you’ll be there for math class,” Kilfoy adds. “Are we making a difference with attendance? Attendance shows that kids are showing up to work on the murals. Because of having been left out of the mainstream, these kids don’t want to show up to school. We give them something they can succeed at and in the process give them a voice to express who they are. Beyond that, it’s developing job skills: showing up on time, working as a team, getting along with people, paying attention to safety.”
P_Lindbergh elementary 2

The DAMA program can mean a lot for communities. Murals change the visual environment and create dialogue, so it is important that the themes for each mural come from the community. Some of the strongest themes that have emerged have been diversity and equality. The focal point of the mural at Centro Hispano, completed last summer, focuses on food. The community members who worked on this mural tied in imagery of their garden shed, the places where they grow food, and also memories associated with meals and people’s cultures.

The town of Vermont, Wis., a community of 800 people west of Madison, wants a mural for the same community-building needs that exist in urban areas. The town clerk, who approached Kilfoy earlier this year, wants to create a destination, and sees a mural as a way to bring people to the town hall. It’s not so different as what happens when something like the state Capitol building transforms from a piece of architecture to a cultural icon and gathering place. Destinations for a city foster community through entertainment and camaraderie, as well as for the causes people gather around to share their voices and express their beliefs.

“Mural making is 50 percent product and 50 percent process. We talk a lot about process, how we create change, how we teach, and then what we leave behind is a product,” Kilfoy says.

“I see my job as being able to create a plan to make these murals happen,” she adds. “My goal is to be able to offer my services countywide. Rural areas need the same kind of opportunities for community building as urban areas. I really credit Mark [Fraire] with making the arts more relevant to both urban and rural communities that haven’t had access to a lot of art opportunities.”

Kilfoy describes artists as a conduit for the conversations that communities need to have. “For the artists, briefly, you’re like a rock star,” Kilfoy said. “But then you move on.”

What they leave behind is this mural, this creative expression, that tells a community, “You matter. You deserve a piece of art. Art’s not just for rich people or for galleries.”

It’s a chance to beautify the city through building community, painting, and connecting with youth. It’s a chance to discuss the things that matter to a local community that then feeds up to what we collectively support as a nation.

For artists, it’s also a big deal.

“We’re looking at increasing and stabilizing our funding and infrastructure to better pay artists and take on more projects,” Kilfoy says.

Kilfoy recognizes how artists are inherently problem solvers. The muralists who worked with Sail West High School, for example, created a no-fail table for students who were afraid to make mistakes, as a way to get the students to be willing to work with their hands before taking on the larger project. As the administrator for DAMA, Kilfoy sees training and support for the artists as essential.

DAMA at West High School
DAMA at West High School

“I don’t think it’s fair to leave the artists on their own. I want to give them the proper tools and training to work with difficult students,” she says. “Yes, they’re inherently problem solvers, and I want to make sure that I’m putting them in the best position with the best preparation to use their skills to help the students.”

Kilfoy praised Madison Community Foundation, who invested early in the project. “The money meant a lot, but also that vote of confidence that our work is valued and that we can then raise more funds,” she says.

This started a conversation about the role of the arts, and how we as citizens vote with our dollars and what this means for education. A quote from author William Deresiewicz comes to mind that challenges an often-expressed assumption: “The humanities are all well and good for the children of the privileged who don’t need to worry about earning a living. But other students … should stick to the practical disciplines. Quantitative fields, not verbal ones … we want one class of persons to have a liberal education and we want another class, very much larger, to forgo the privileges of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific, difficult, manual tasks.”

Deresiewicz goes on to write, “It is not the proponents of a liberal arts education who are the elitists. It is those who would reserve it to the lucky few.”

What is DAMA looking for, and how can people get involved?

Kilfoy and her team have met with members of the Philly Mural Program, Chicago Public Art Group, Groundswell in Brooklyn, and other programs that have demonstrated success with their use of the arts in fostering and transforming communities. These programs have been immensely generous in their advice and for Kilfoy and her team to learn from and then customize for Dane County’s needs.

Kilfoy says one of DAMA’s biggest challenges is allowing the time necessary for everything to unfold. They are looking for corporate and private funding, for that vote of confidence in both the programming they offer and the value of the artists’ work to reach more of Dane County. Kilfoy would like to also increase public involvement through such things as public paint days, which they will be able to do as they develop the program’s infrastructure.

One of the goals of DAMA is to train as many artists as possible to be community artists.
One of the goals of DAMA is to train as many artists as possible to be community artists.

People can apply to be artists, and also to have a mural. “We’re trying to focus on exterior murals because of the visibility, though that doesn’t mean we won’t do interior murals,” Kilfoy says. Those who have a connection with a wall that is open and available for use can get in touch with Kilfoy to discuss details of the site’s needs and mural costs.

Madison is developing faster by the day, and as a result flies through more pitches of whom the city needs to be, technologically and economically. It will become ever-more important for to pay attention to what values we choose to foster and how. For education, what kind of schooling can help us create a society that lives up to the values it promotes, one that defines success by more than its business savvy, one that takes the time to understand and develop the heart and ethics of its culture? In a society that prizes freedom of speech, do we readily make available the types of opportunities that teach people how to communicate? The work of DAMA, Kilfoy hopes, will readily give more people the chance to tell their stories and, hopefully, those stories will become a part of Madison’s evolving and iconic landscape.