Changing Perceptions: Mural Art as a Catalyst for Change

Changing Perceptions: Mural Art as a Catalyst for Change

By Claire Trammell

“Maxwell’s World” by Nico Cathcart. Photo by Claire Trammell.

Perceptions can be very powerful. After the devastating effects of “white flight” and continuous oppression before, during and after the Civil Rights movement, communities in downtown Birmingham, such as historic Woodlawn, were left to battle the perceptions of those who saw the area as nothing more than “the bad part of town.” Despite the community’s efforts, some refused to see the potential of these neighborhoods, the stories of struggle and perseverance, the hope of what can become. That is, until art started to appear, almost overnight, on street corners and the sides of businesses. And perceptions changed. Everything changed. 

“It’s really important to change those perceptions. One of the things that goes with how you feel is the images that you see,” explains community facilitator Jason Avery while standing under the words “Hear Our Voice,” the focal point of Woodlawn’s most recent mural. “A lot of things we see in a neighborhood that’s declining are drugs, prostitution, people standing on the street, broken down dilapidated buildings, and it’s really important to change those images for the kids that are growing up in the neighborhood. That’s what public art can do.” Woodlawn’s art in that it accurately reflects the adversity and progress the town has faced. Avery explains more about the mission of Woodlawn, how it is incredibly diverse, with an up-and-coming business district, which emphasizes excellence for all.  

Jason Avery photographs his friend in front of the new “Hear Our Voice,” only a block away from The Way. Photo by Claire Trammell.

The murals that reside here function as an enhancement to the already special community. “Woodlawn is already a great beautiful quilt,” and these murals are “a patch that adds to the vibrancy and adds to the beauty of that quilt.” One of the biggest additions to this quilt occurred in the fall of 2021, with the inaugural Magic City Mural fest. By the end of one week, a local alleyway was transformed into “The Way,” with six new murals, each created by a female artist depicting different strong women and inspiring narratives. The alley is now frequented by parades of cars celebrating the artwork, the artists, and the community. Before, those same people would have had preconceived notions or even question their safety in the area. 

These murals not only have the power to represent underestimated communities, but it also plays into many larger cultural narratives. Meghan McCollum, owner of the mural collaborative Blank Space and creator of the mural fest, understands this power, which is why she was intentional in choosing all females to create the art. “This is a space traditionally not for us. Often times, women are told to be afraid of walking through an alleyway or to make themselves small. In urban spaces in general, women are told not to feel safe. This is about taking back our power, to be visible and reclaim this space, along with the narrative that women are capable, and we belong here.”  

The women who participate in this project are also aware of the impact their art has on the larger community.  

“Art is a great way to expand your horizons, but it can really bridge gaps between communities too,” said artist Anna Dugan, who participated in the second mural fest. “Art offers different perspectives. Being a public artist is a super-important role in society, especially nowadays.”  

They are also committed to the growth of Birmingham and the positive direction in which the community is headed. Artist Charity Hamidullah described her relationship with the city this way: “Birmingham is a beautiful place. I think it is still very untouched in its growth … it is beautiful to see something very true to itself.”  

Charity Hamidulah adds the base coat for her mural. Photo by Claire Trammell.

Each artist who participates has her own experiences, hardships, and stories to tell, and the murals function as a representation of those stories. These stories receive a permanent place in the Woodlawn community, adding to and embellishing the unique and complex narrative of the neighborhood. All the stories told in “The Way” have a unifying truth: the power of women as a driving force and the necessity for expression as a form of resilience. 

Through her work with Blank Space, McCollum has become one with Birmingham, and especially the community of Woodlawn. “You love a place so much,” she says, “you care for it so deeply, and this is how I show love.” She shows through her work the impact of art as a part of community development, and an opportunity to form relationships, all while telling individuals’ stories and capturing the heart of the city.  

She hopes to spread the impact of the mural fest to other Birmingham communities, and potentially even farther, in order to effectively tell their stories and contribute to changing their narratives. “For me, mural art erases barriers. It allows people to interact with their home on a different level. It’s about being able to work together with a community and capture the narrative of that place, whether it is literally or having paint on a wall be a symbol that someone cares about this place, they’re invested in this place. It’s about interrupting someone’s day to day with the idea that things could be different.”