"I enjoy watching young people gain confidence in themselves and make positive connections with their peers and adults in their community through the act of collaborative art making." - Joel Bergner

Joel Bergner is a muralist/ street artist and educator from the US, whose work focuses on issues of culture, social justice, and telling the stories of those who have been ignored or misunderstood by society. U.S. Consulate General in collaboration with Banglanatak.com and Birla Academy of Art & Culture  hosted  Joel Bergner and his wife, artist and activist Karla Jayne Thomas at the Birla Academy Premises. Joel worked with Kolkata based young leaders and local artists to create a mural on U.S.-India Relationship .

What inspired you to become an artist? What lead you to your path as a mural artist?

I’ve always been into art since I was a small child, so it wasn’t a conscious decision to become an artist. When I was a teenager, creating art was a way to focus and express myself during difficult struggles. I was drawn to public murals because I saw them as a way to make art that was for the broader population and focus on societal issues.

Are there different qualities that define a mural artist?

Yes, a mural artist must contemplate the location of the piece, including the community, the surrounding environment and the physical space where the mural will be painted. The muralist must also have the ability to paint on a large scale. In today’s movement of street art, it is also important to have the ability to paint quickly, which is aided by spray paint, as one often has a limited amount of time to create a piece. 

How did you get where you are today touring and creating murals to inspire education in foreign countries?

I followed the paths that I felt passionate about—I worked for years in community-based work such as counseling teens in a treatment center and working with the homeless, and simultaneously developed my artwork. Over time, I began to merge these two passions and experiment with community-based mural art. As I facilitated countless projects with NGO’s, youth centers, schools and anyone who I could find to work with over several years, often with very limited funding, my work began to attract attention. I was fortunate enough to connect with opportunities in many countries around the world, and each project led to further opportunities. 

What is the main challenge you face when planning and preparing for a community mural painting?

Each project has new challenges, as I work with a large variety of communities, ages, and demographics. I often walk into a project not knowing exactly what to expect, so this work requires a great deal of flexibility.

At what point in the process of the painting do you begin to feel like the painting belongs as much to the community view and influence as it does to your own? Is there any point when you stop considering the mural to be yours?

That question implies that I think of the mural as my own to begin with, which I don’t. I do create my own personal work as well, which is a separate discussion, but when I facilitate a community mural project I start off with workshops in which the participants themselves come up with the theme and imagery for the mural design through a series of activities, discussions and sketch sessions. I then guide them through the process of turning their ideas into one cohesive mural design, which they paint with me in a collaborative process.

How has mural painting influenced your life?

Mural painting is my chosen tool for interacting with the world, addressing societal issues, meeting new people, advocate for positive social change, and has given me incredible opportunities to travel, learn and share.

What qualities do you look for in the people and artists you work with?

While I enjoy working with artists and educators whose work I admire, the most important aspect that I contemplate when looking for collaborators is their spirit and outlook on community-based work. It is important in this line of work that one has the desire and ability to connect with others, to be open and passionate and truly care about the issues at hand. Positive energy is also critical.

In your experience, what's the best thing about painting murals?

I enjoy watching young people gain confidence in themselves and make positive connections with their peers and adults in their community through the act of collaborative art making.

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