From the Walls to the Screen in Muraling Austin on Austin PBS

New three-part series puts the city's walls in motion

Reconnect Yourself by Niz, part of the Be Well murals on the Lamar Underpass (photo by Alan Lessig)

When you say "public art" in many cities, the first thought is statues. But in Austin it's murals, explosions of color and theme that have turned buildings, bridges, underpasses, and back alleys into open-air gallery spaces. "Murals are bursting all over the walls of Austin," explained Natasha Davison, series producer and executive director for Muraling Austin, a new show for Austin PBS exploring how artists are beautifying the city's flat, gray spaces.

The three-part series begins on March 24 with "Pride of Place," focusing on Austin's most inspiring murals. "Women Rising" (March 31) explores works that feature expressions of female empowerment and celebrate the achievements of women. Rounding out the trilogy is "Big, Bright & Bold" (April 7), a celebration of contemporary mural artists and their works. "There are such incredible stories behind the murals," Davison said. "The artists that created them, the way that that mural came to be, the organizations that came together to secure the walls and the materials and the artists. And then what is depicted in these murals: Some are aimed at beautifying a space, some are depictions of community activists and organizers who have a big impact in Austin, so it's a really rich, deep history."

In the initial discussions with Austin PBS, Davison said, "they were very interested in doing a television series on graffiti, [but] that is really hard to do for TV. We could do it, but it's hard to capture footage, and a lot of this is illegal, and it's at night."

“Some [murals] are aimed at beautifying a space, some are depictions of community activists. ... It’s a really rich, deep history”   – Natasha Davison

However, the line between traditional graffiti and murals has blurred long ago. Take "The Beauty of Liberty and Equality" on the side of the Line Hotel, one of the images covered in episode 1: Shepard Fairey, who created it with Canadian artist Sandra Chevrier, may be an internationally acclaimed creative, but as recently as 2015 he was busted in Detroit for tagging. "A lot of the artists that we talk to in the series got their start doing rogue art or graffiti," Davison said, "but it's got subcategories even within that art culture, where they'll say graffiti is illegal lettering and they're like, 'Well, if I'm doing a figure that's not really lettering, but it's still illegal.'"

But Muraling Austin concentrates on art that has been invited onto spaces by the city, businesses, and property owners, and Davison credited organizations like the Downtown Austin Alliance Foundation for connecting property owners and local artists. However, just because there is institutional support for these works, it doesn't mean that they're not transitory – subject to the whims of the weather, redevelopment, tagging, and even redesign by the artist. That's why the show is an opportunity to record or maybe even memorialize these works at a certain moment, but it meant the Muraling Austin team was constantly trying to beat the clock. Davison said, "One of our artists created a mural over at the soccer stadium, but they change them out every eight weeks. We wanted to shoot it, but they went, 'Oh, we already changed it!'"

Muraling Austin premieres 7:30pm Fri., March 24, on Austin PBS HDTV.

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