Art Education Ph.D. candidate Natalia Pilato never met the late Meridith Sanz, a midwife who delivered more than 1,000 babies in the western Belize town of San Ignacio. But after conversations with community members indicated she was a person who deserved to be honored—in a big way—she worked with more than 175 Belize residents to design and paint an 800-square-foot mural for San Ignacio that pays tribute to Sanz and highlights other people, places, and ideas important to residents of the Central American town.
Community engagement is at the core of Pilato’s work, both as a graduate student and social activist. “I have always appreciated art that exists outside museum walls, especially art practices that are collaborative and involve participatory approaches with community members who may or may not deem themselves ‘artists,’” said the Penn State School of Visual Arts alumna, who holds a B.F.A. in Sculpture and M.S. in Art Education.
The San Ignacio mural, titled “A Painted Conversation,” is part of Pilato’s dissertation research, which investigates how community-based artistic practices can be used for building the social capital of target communities, leading to greater social responsibility and democratic participation.
“A Painted Conversation” is the fourth such mural she has completed. She collaborated with Elody Gyekis (’09 B.F.A. Art) on two in downtown State College: “Dreams Take Flight” and “Colors of Music.” The fourth—“Children Are the Seeds of the Future”—is in Williamsport, where she worked as director of arts and education at the Campbell Street Community Center.
In 2013, Pilato was one of only ten students nationwide to receive a scholarship from Joy of Giving Something, Inc., a non-profit corporation dedicated to the photographic arts, in recognition of her leadership in facilitating community-based arts experiences.
Pilato has followed a similar production process for all four of her murals, involving community members from the start. They help get input from local residents on the murals’ content, and then paint panels for the murals, using a paint-by-numbers method. Volunteers also help affix the murals to their final locations.
Pilato began her efforts in San Ignacio in 2014, working with students taking a social issues course at Galen University. She chose San Ignacio because she had previously lived in the region for ten years, and had her two children there. Her connections in the community helped her to generate support—monetary, intellectual, and physical—for her mural project.
“I also knew the beauty of this place and the kindness of the inhabitants would enable me to be happy with my work and enjoy my time spent abroad,” she said. “I care deeply for many individuals in this region and thus was committed to working with them to implement the mural initiative.”
The Galen University students interviewed 100 local residents during 2014. Their research resulted in the mural addressing issues such as diversity, community pride, youth ambition, and social and personal responsibility. During summer 2015, Pilato taught a Galen University special topics course on community-based art, where students learned design principles and painting techniques, as well as how to participate in civic and community relations.
Eve Aird, provost of Galen University, said the student participants benefitted greatly, learning about collaboration and community building. “Perhaps most importantly, it gave our students a greater sense of self-worth, a sense of accomplishment. This course made them feel like they can create beauty. … It gave them hope for the future.”
The students and community volunteers finished painting the panels during the summer and fall of 2015, and the mural was installed in November 2015.
In addition to Meridith Sanz, the painting features local children of different ethnic backgrounds, a poem written by a Galen University student, representations of ecotourism, and a tranquillo scene, in shades of blue with butterflies flying toward a “moon goddess.” It also contains the words “All ah we dah one,” Belizean Kreole for “We are all one people.”
Bianca Serrut was one of the many local residents who volunteered. “After working one day with Natalia, I fell in love with her personality and I fell in love with her great passion for art,” she said. “The mural brings so much beauty to our community. We love how happy it makes us, to look at and admire the mural. There are a lot of local vibes in the mural and it’s something we can totally relate to.”
- Amy Milgrub Marshall