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

Barely ten days into my Sacatar artist residency in Bahia, the islanders of Itaparica bestowed a great honor: an invitation to paint a mural for their neighborhood church, Santo 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; to Santo 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 eastern 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 skies.


Completing the design, I carried my laptop, my drawing, and the library's loaned projector to Santo 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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