Alumna leads community art projects in Greece
Alumna and muralist Tyler Kay broadened her career as an artist by taking her work to another part of the world.
Kay, who is currently a graduate student at UH in Arts Leadership, spent a two-part residency in Skopelos, Greece, as a part of her practicum credit for her graduate program. Kay painted a total of six murals that turned into community projects.
The first part of Kay’s residency was in June, and the second part was in August.
“I knew that I wanted to do some kind of community project, and I didn’t want to do it locally,” Kay said. “I wanted to make myself uncomfortable, in a sense, and emerge myself in a different environment.”
Fleurette Fernando, the director of the arts leadership program, said Kay was the first in the program to be placed internationally for her practicum credit.
“We would love to see more of that happen, because we want to attract more students from countries outside of the U.S.,” Fernando said. “I think it just makes for a better, more-informed program to have that kind of cultural exchange.”
Across the pond
While interviewing Houston arts leader John Ross Palmer for a class, Kay said he mentioned taking his artwork to the island of Skopelos. While searching online for art in Skopelos, Kay discovered the Skopelos Foundation for the Arts, which offers artist residencies.
The foundation, a nonprofit, aims to promote the arts and education through cultural exchanges.
Since flowers are a common theme in Kay’s work, she proposed documenting the native flora on the island through murals, meaning she would paint all the flowers she encountered while in Skopelos.
“I needed a creative recharge, and I pictured myself just painting flowers,” Kay said. “I turned it into a big project.”
During the first month of residency, Kay directed four community mural projects with students from the elementary and middle school. Kay drew the murals, and the students helped her paint.
Kay said she designed each mural to be similar to a paint-by-number, where five or so different colors were assigned to the children by dabbing paint on the objects drawn.
“It gives someone a sense of power when they can contribute to something that’s permanent in their community,” Kay said. “The kids were really proud that they were a part of the paintings.”
Kay created a rose and peony mural across two entrances of the elementary school. At the middle school, she painted a geometric mural for the facility’s interior and a floral design on the wall of the outdoor restrooms.
Kay said she designed each mural simultaneously, traveling back and forth between the elementary and middle school.
“The first trip was definitely community-driven,” Kay said. “We would have 15-minute increments for different classrooms to make sure all kids had an opportunity.”
When Kay returned for her second residency in August, she designed murals for the local amphitheater and fire station.
Kay said several music and dance festivals took place in the amphitheater, and she wanted to portray the Skopelos culture. The mural depicts a traditional Skopelos wedding with people playing native instruments, such as the accordion, clarinet and violin.
“It was just a little, fun mural with the bougainvillea hanging at the top to fill in the white space,” Kay said.
Since the island is filled with pine trees, Kay said the firefighters requested a mural of trees and themselves. The mural illustrates firefighters with a forest fire and firetruck.
“They were loving that they were getting something that wasn’t a white wall,” Kay said.
August is peak tourist season for the island and many residents were busy at work, so Kay’s second residency was more independent. Still, some children came out to help, and firefighters at the station helped her prepare the wall and hold the ladder while she worked.
Since this was Kay’s first community project and her first time working with many children at once, she said she learned how to be “calm among the chaos.”
“The one thing I can say is, whenever you’re leading any kind of project, whether it’s with children or adults, you can’t have total control over your mural,” Kay said. “It’s almost like you have to trust it or wing it — or at least fake it — and then in the end fix whatever is bothering you.”
Kay said the overall experience helped her grow as an artist, but she encountered some opposition during her residency as a visiting artist.
Since Kay was painting long hours in the summer heat, she said the island residents were skeptical about where she received her funding for her work.
“They actually had community meetings, and they said that I was trying to make money off the community,” Kay said.
Since practicum credits work similarly to unpaid internships, Kay said she funded the artist residency herself with a scholarship from UH Learning Abroad. When Kay told the Skopelos community that she was there for educational purposes through the foundation and the University of Houston, they began to trust and accept her as a visiting artist.
“It was worth the funding for this experience,” Kay said. “I thought the best way to get my graduate research was to immerse myself in a different culture, and that’s where I wanted to spend my time and money.”
Kay said the locals even presented her with a farewell ceremony and gifts at the end of her residency.
“I learned so much about working with different cultures and making sure compositions are appropriate for your audiences,” Kay said. “Knowing who to ask for permission for a mural and whose advice to not care for.”
As one of Kay’s professors and advisers, Fernando said that one of Kay’s strengths is her ability to find and create opportunities, and that is something the program wants to emphasize to all of its students.
“Don’t wait for something to be presented to you,” Fernando said. “Go out there and find it, or make it happen. She’s a really good example of that.”
According to a previous article by The Cougar, Kay’s goal has always been to bring art into the community.
“I want future graduate students to take their studies abroad to immerse themselves in different cultures and put themselves in uncomfortable situations,” Kay said.