United We Paint

On Monday, December 3, 53 members of the community came to the UT Performing Arts Center to create a giant American flag for display outside Bass Concert Hall.

United We Paint

"She's the emblem of/The land I love ..." -- George M. Cohan

Ever since September 11, Americans of all stripes (and stars, I suppose) have been rediscovering what a certain Yankee Doodle Dandy told us 95 years ago: that the flag is a grand old symbol for communicating your feelings for this country. To that end, they have been proudly brandishing the star-spangled banner on cars and clothing, and outside their homes and the places they work.

United We Paint

The staff of the UT Performing Arts Center wanted to do the same thing outside their workplace, but not with the same old, same Old Glory. They had a vision of a flag that was also a work of art and a creation of the community: a Stars & Stripes hand-painted by folks from all over Austin and bearing their personal messages and creative flourishes.

So on Monday, December 3, they invited all comers to the PAC scene shop to make a flag. Spread across the floor was a 26-by-50-foot canvas surrounded by buckets, brushes, and about 30 gallons of red, white, and blue paint. Under the supervision of scene shop manager Karen Maness, participants first painted in the 13 stripes and 50 stars in their traditional colors, but then were set free to make their mark on the flag in whatever way moved them. Some embellished the stars in the upper left, some added smaller six-pointed stars elsewhere. A number contributed peace symbols and handprints; a few children left tiny footprints as well. One participant spangled the flag with flying birds. Another painted an entire smaller version of Old Glory in the lower right corner. And many expressed themselves in words: "hope," "freedom," "choose love," "keep the faith," "4ever in our prayers," "proud to be American." They drew on sentiments from the past (Cicero's "Hanc rem publicam salvam esse volumus" [We wish the republic to be safe] and the Book of Psalms' "So teach us to number our days that we may apply ourselves to wisdom") and from the wellspring of our country's identity ("Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave," "Out of many, one").

By the end of the workday, 53 volunteers had contributed to the flag. Most were PAC employees, but there were also representatives of government agencies and the media (including this writer, who painted the word "indivisible") and a few folks who listed their affiliation on the project sign-in sheet as simply "citizen." Tuesday morning, the flag was taken to the front of Bass Concert Hall and put on display.

Like other similar projects initiated in the wake of the terrorist attacks, the PAC flag stands as not only an expression of unity within the USA but a metaphor for the country itself. It is the work of many hands and features many voices, each speaking his or her mind openly. It contains remarks that are diverse and sometimes contradictory. One can even see civic conversations taking place within it: The phrase "One nation under God" sits below the question "Whose God?" In the sentiment "Forgive us," the word "us" is marked through and replaced with "them." So much is being said and in so many ways that the whole can't help but be somewhat messy, but it is also crowded with meaning and is, in the end, beautiful. It is democracy embodied in an arrangement of bars and stars. It's a grand old flag, indeed.

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United We Paint, UT Performing Arts Center, Bass Concert Hall, Karen Maness

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