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Painting a Community Mural on the Island of Itaparica, Bahia, Brazil, 2011
Sao Antonio Church, Itaparica, Bahia, Brazil

Barely ten days into my Sacatar artist residency in Bahia, the islanders of Itaparica bestowed upon me a great honor: an invitation to paint a mural for their neighborhood church, Sao Antonio dos Navegantes. Of course, I replied, I'd be honored to paint one, if the proper materials could be obtained (the wall was covered in glazed ceramic tile). I left the details to Augusto, Sacatar's administrator, to resolve; and to Sao Antonio and Exú to facilitate; while I went back to drawing.


The proper paints were finally determined, shipped from Sao Paulo, and ferried across the bay just a week before I was to leave; but I knew things would work out - even if the intense (110 degree) morning sun beating down on the east-facing wall meant I could only paint afternoons and evenings.


Inspired by the blue and white Portuguese tile murals embellishing Colonial-era churches in Salvador across the bay, I chose to work in blue monochrome, which saved us precious time and money, and had the added effect of echoing Itaparica’s gorgeous clear blue skies.


Having completed the design (the church elders insisted I depict both Sao Antonio and the Christ Child as white), I carried my laptop, my drawing, and the library's loaned projector to Sao Antonio's hilltop church; and as a crowd assembled in the night, grabbed a grease pencil in pure joy. Drawing on a white wall at night I understood why street writers love their work.

Over the following afternoons I painted the dark blue outlines; then light blue tones; then deeper blue tones; and on the fifth and final evening I inscribed thank-you to the various donors.


As I painted each day, it was sweet to witness gathering crowds: passers-by pausing between chores and home; street vendors; neighborhood kids playing fútbol; the Lost Boys in their drug stupor, eagerly lending a hand to move my scaffolding; and the occasional cyclists and motorists ("We always have a beautiful view driving downhill [towards the ocean], but now we have a beautiful view driving uphill, too"). Women brought me fresh-squeezed juice and cookies. And Camelita, a sweetheart, gifted me a century-old statue of Santo Antonio that had been in her family for decades.


The morning after I completed the mural, the community held a celebratory breakfast, announced in proper Itaparican fashion with fireworks, featuring a priest’s blessing, during which several women, teary-eyed, pointed to the place in their hearts where I was now forever lodged - profound blessing for four afternoons' work.


The next evening - just before I was to leave the island - the visitor's bell rang, and twenty church members, resplendent in red blouses, rolled out of a rented van, surrounded me to sing praise songs, lined up to give me hugs, and presented a hand-engraved granite plaque: "Our eternal gratitude to J Michael Walker for his magnanimous work on our chapel / Itaparica, Bahía, Brasil, February 2011 / Community of Santo Antonio dos Navegantes"


Repeatedly I was asked a question with only one reasonable response: Of course I will be back: How can I not?

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