Isthmus Indie Awards 2014: Artist/Muralist Sharon Kilfoy (MA ’80) Celebrates All Facets of Diversity

If you’ve seen a mural in Madison, Sharon Kilfoy probably had a hand in its creation. For the last 10 years, Kilfoy has run the Williamson Street Art Center, which helps local kids and artists enhance local neighborhoods with large-scale works, especially in areas that get overlooked in discussions about public art.

Neighborhood Notable: Sharon Kilfoy, Photo by Laura Zastrow
Neighborhood Notable: Sharon Kilfoy, Story by Lanni Solochek, Photo by Laura Zastrow

After coming to Madison for graduate school, Kilfoy spent 27 years with the Respite Center at Madison’s Center for Families. On the side, she painted murals with youth at schools and neighborhood centers.

“I was trying to give kids an experience that they wouldn’t get in a classroom,” she says.

With this vision in mind, Kilfoy launched the Williamson Street Art Center out of her home. Since then, she has worked on murals like the Home Away from Home wall in Centro Hispano and the mural on UW-Madison’s Humanities Building.

Though the scope of Kilfoy’s work has expanded over the last decade, it is still very focused on youth.

“My goal is to get kids engaged in something,” she says. “One thing that makes mural work unique is the scale of it. To take something that you’ve done on an 8-by-10 sheet of paper and see it blown up, that’s exciting no matter who you are.”

Above all, Kilfoy believes in young people. She says they understand the importance of street art and see how art can transform lives.

“When they see other people in the community appreciating that work, it gets them engaged on a whole other level,” she says.

Plus murals can promote neighborly sentiments and strengthen community bonds.

“Murals say, ‘We’re glad you’re here, we’re glad you’re part of the city, and we’re glad you’re part of the community,'” Kilfoy says.

The Isthmus Independent Business Awards, now in their fifth year, celebrate retailers, inventors, artists, scientists and others who show bold, innovative leadership and who give back to our community. Read about this year’s 10 winners in the following profiles. Here are this year’s recipients:

Read more: Sharon Kilfoy’s murals unite their communities

(from Isthmus, The people’s paintings, by Esty Dinur on Thursday 06/17/2010)

It’s drizzling on Gallery Night, but a crowd has gathered this May evening outside the Social Justice Center at 1202 Williamson St. U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin speaks, then Ald. Marsha Rummel and the Madison Arts Commission’s Karin Wolf. As the rain continues, the crowd listens to Michael Bonesteel, of the Art Institute of Chicago, and to Dan Yopack from Santa Fe, who later identifies himself as a poet and shaman.

Madison Justice Center Mural
Madison Justice Center Mural

The latter two men were founders of Madison’s original MAMA – not the music awards, but the group that declared the death of the art movement known as Dada. MAMA was a 1970s artists’ collective, the Madison Area Movement of the Arts.

The collective, as well as other artists and Willy Street characters who worked for sweeping change, are immortalized now on a mural titled Toward Revolution – 1970’s Vision. Sharon Kilfoy created it with the help of many volunteers, and it is being dedicated, even as the rain keeps on.

Kilfoy was a member of that community. The people depicted on the mural in bold colors are all her friends. Some of them are dead.

Cele Wolf, from the Amazement Company theater group and band, is painted on the wall. She sings later, at the reception inside the Social Justice Center.

Wolf’s late partner, Dennis Coleman, and her drummer, the famous Ray-Ray, are on the wall. The band played at the first Willy Street Fair in 1977, which was organized by Yopack. He owned Gallery 853, the Artists Research Workshop, and he organized the St. Vincent de Paul Fashion Show, a “happening” intended to take art out of the university and the hands of the moneyed elite, and into the streets.

Mona Webb and her Way House Gallery of Light, covered with art inside and out, are portrayed. So is John Tuschen, the first poet laureate of Madison, a post he held for some 20 years. He, likewise, spent his entire life taking poetry to the streets.

Melissa Agard Sergeant, the new county supervisor for District 18 and the only person in the mural who was a child in the 1970s, is in the mural. So is her mother, artist Cate Loughran, who started Madison Area Open Art Studios.

Born in 1950 in Chicago, Sharon Kilfoy is a Willy Street resident who has enlisted volunteers, children and adults alike, to create numerous murals in Madison and Dane County – in schools, public spaces and community centers. In Kilfoy’s world, anyone can work on a mural, whether they draw, paint or think up ideas. The beauty of the finished product is only half of the deal. The other half is what happens to people through the process.

Mural at Centro Hispano
Mural at Centro Hispano

In school, kids make art in isolation and competition. But when it comes to working on murals, Kilfoy says: “We’ll take everybody’s ideas.” She has developed ways of making children collaborate – one kid gets the light green and another the dark green, and they have to paint the leaves together. Adults, too, do things according to their abilities. “You plug them in, in a way that’ll give them some success.”

Another recent Kilfoy work, in Centro Hispano (810 W. Badger Rd.), has a Home Away from Home wall, and another wall with typical Mexican landscapes and sights. There is a Caribbean scene and a Heroes of Hispanic Heritage segment.

These strikingly beautiful murals were created with numerous volunteers, including teens. Many were court-ordered to do community service.

Says Kilfoy, “Some of these kids are undocumented. Some are in gangs. Many of them are transitioning cultures. I never asked why they were there, but I found out that many of them had driving violations. They can’t get driver’s licenses even though they’ve lived here most of their lives.”

Often they didn’t know much about their heritage. “The first time I heard them talking about some of the [heroes on the wall], I went to [former Centro Hispano director] Peter Munoz and said to him, ‘It’s working! it’s working!'”

Jessie Nunez, 20, was one of these kids when she started sketching the murals with Kilfoy in 2008. The experience was so rewarding that she continued working for two more years.

“Sharon will have people start something and finish it until it looks good,” says Nunez. “She teaches them. I learned a lot through her, also about my culture. I was one of these kids who get in trouble on the streets, but she pulled me and helped me. She put me in charge, gave me responsibility. She didn’t feel that I was a kid to be careful about, but the opposite.”

GO, BIG ART! Madison to Mexico Mural Project encompassed youth in both countries.
GO, BIG ART! Madison to Mexico Mural Project encompassed youth in both countries.

Now a student at MATC’s criminal justice program, Nunez wants to work with at-risk youth. “I’ve had a lot of people who supported me and gave me chances, and Sharon is one of them,” she says. “She gave me a place to be and something to do, and that’s true for hundreds of kids.”

Kilfoy was educated in Catholic schools and started questioning the system when, at age 17, she went on a trip to Italy. The splendor and riches of the Vatican, “with more gold than in Fort Knox,” juxtaposed against the incredible poverty of the Italian countryside, suggested to her that something was wrong.

Omega School mural
Omega School mural

Upon returning, she refused to go to Mass anymore and was, surprisingly, allowed to go to art class instead. An exhibition of surrealist art in the Art Institute of Chicago that same year affected her too, as did the riots that accompanied the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968.

That was the year Kilfoy arrived in Madison to attend the university, though “I got my education on the streets,” she says. “Those times were incredible. Everything was exploding. It was very exciting.”

A class in 19th-century philosophy found her “smitten by Hegel” and interested in Karl Marx. She started considering herself a socialist. She got a degree in philosophy and eventually a master’s in art – though, she clarifies, “not an MFA. There are certain ways of looking at art in academia that are narrow. There are blinders.”

Kilfoy found fault with the way the visual arts are used. “Being an artist in this society relegates you to adding to the consumerist clutter. You make stuff for rich people, and very few people see it. I didn’t want to take part in it.”

What she did want was a meaning to her life, which she found by creating with other people, in service to the community. Taking art to the streets. Muraling.

Kilfoy’s works continue a long tradition of community-based murals, says Melanie Herzog, professor of art history at Edgewood College. They celebrate the histories and cultures of particular communities and neighborhoods in Madison.

Indeed, in the United States, murals have historically been “people’s art,” says Herzog. The tradition goes back to the revolutionary Mexican muralists of the early 20th century, among them Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco. They painted murals in public spaces throughout that country, making its history visible, and they were also invited to paint murals in the United States during the 1930s.

They inspired U.S. artists, who recorded histories of immigration, working people’s struggles and aspects of urban and rural life. Many of these murals were painted for Depression-era federal government projects. The 1960s saw a resurgence, as Mexican American artists claimed murals as their legacy. Murals by African American artists were central to the visual arts of the Black Power movement in cities throughout the U.S., often painted by community members along with trained muralists.

Mural in the entry of the Madison Labor Temple
Mural in the entry of the Madison Labor Temple

Kilfoy draws on the progressive history of murals as people’s art. Her themes often hark back to those of the ’30s and the ’60s. Her imagery is generated by active engagement with the people who will live with the murals and view them daily.

Take her Pathways of Connection mural at the east side’s Lowell School, which educates children from wealthy families alongside those who come from the low-income Darbo-Worthington neighborhood. When consulted, the students chose to highlight, as the pathways, the school’s neighborhood and technology. In one part of the mural, Martin Luther King speaks.

In 2007, Dane County’s By Youth for Youth committee gave a grant to the Sun Prairie Youth and Family Commission. The town, which still has a rural feel, has been undergoing changes, absorbing low-income and minority families who can’t afford rent in Madison.

Lisa Nelson, a member of the commission at the time, had visited San Antonio and learned that buildings with murals were the only ones not tagged by gang graffiti. Returning to Sun Prairie, she thought that marginalized and at-risk youth could benefit from expressing themselves artistically, thus investing in their community and gaining a stronger sense of belonging and pride.

She commissioned Kilfoy to create a mural with the School of Alternative Resources, the town’s alternative high school. The mayor secured a space in a public bathroom near Angell Park, and Kilfoy and the school’s students worked together for two years. That mural was followed by a second. Work on a third, with the theme of “Sun Prairie in the Arts,” is in its first stages.

Says Nelson, “Sharon doesn’t stop until satisfied. In addition, she works great with kids. She teaches while she does this, and the kids trust her and share things about their lives.” The murals are “an artistic contribution to Sun Prairie.”

Sun Prairie Mural project
Sun Prairie Mural project

Karen Crossley, director of the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission, says that Kilfoy’s murals unite artists and their communities through a collaborative, creative process. They let communities reflect on history and culture, and they let people who may not consider themselves artists participate in art-making. They’re beautiful and hopeful. They “transform public spaces and, in many cases, individual lives.”

Kilfoy has visited Mexico – “the epicenter of art-making, especially murals” – numerous times since she was 20. But she dreams of Philadelphia, where one of her four daughters lives. The city’s Mural Arts Program started as an anti-gang and graffiti strategy, then expanded to neighborhoods, schools and, most recently, prisons. Hundreds of artists are employed in it each year, and hundreds of thousands of people are involved.

Kilfoy says she would try to implement such a large-scale program here – “if I was younger.”

The benefits are clear. “You beautify the city and affect people’s lives.”