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Public Display of Affection

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Muralist Alex Cook ’98 is a skilled craftsperson with a profound dedication to love, to community, and to what I’ll agnostically call “the great beauty of the universe.” When we met in the streets of Jamaica Plain, I braced myself for the showy sincerity that sometimes accompanies public art. But instead, I found myself a total convert. Cook’s work is simple, yet starkly complex. His heartfelt three-word murals are bold in color and in message—and he means every word. He started creating murals in 1997 for his senior thesis at UMass, and today, he invites community members to join him in adorning their walls with vibrant paintings.

Cook spoke with me about his international mural project and what he’s learned along the way.

On his time at UMass

I had to create a body of work to write a thesis and graduate from UMass. I decided I was going to do a series of murals, and I ultimately ended up talking with the man who owned what used to be Pop’s Package in Northampton but is now The Roost. It’s wonderful to go to museums, but it’s a different experience when there’s a fantastic mural over a garbage dumpster on the liquor store. I suggested my idea, showed him a sketch, and he said yes.

On the beginning of “You Are Loved”

I was working on a mural at a school in New Orleans, and the principal of that school asked me, “Can you do anything with this mural that will help our students feel more safe?” And I thought, Wow! What a cool request to be made of art! Art can do lots of things. Can art help children feel safe? I tried to think of an image that would have this effect. But as I listened inside myself, a question came to me: Why are you beating around the bush?

I want to talk about love in public

And then I thought, what does it mean to be direct? What if we just wrote the words “You Are Loved” on the wall? It’s a very intimate thing to say to someone, and then to say that intimate thing in permanent paint on a permanent wall felt very exposing. It felt like opening up my chest and saying, “Here’s who I am.”

That was in November of 2013, and when I got home, I knew, this is what I’m gonna do. I want to put those words in a public place, huge.

On arriving at “You Are Loved”

I want to talk about love in public. The implication of that is a relationship with suffering, honestly. We all have our struggles.

The You Are Loved project consists of five phrases: ‘You Are Loved,’ ‘You Are Needed,’ ‘You Are Important,’ ‘You Are Beautiful,’ and ‘You Can Do It.’ And I arrived at those by thinking, in the most desperate moments of my life, if I could have internalized a phrase that would have reversed the bad feeling I was having, what would those phrases have been?

If you’ve participated in something beautiful, it pushes back against despair.

From its beginnings, it was necessary for the You Are Loved idea that they be in as many kinds of places as possible. It would be one thing if these murals were all in schools, but it’s another thing when they’re in schools and prisons and businesses and religious organizations. The message speaks really differently when it’s not just aimed at fifth graders who, culturally, we’re used to supporting.

On art doing its job

Art is a vehicle of beauty and beauty saves lives. Beauty saved my life, you know. Beauty gave me a reason to live. I felt from the very beginning that I’ll do anything to create something truly beautiful, especially if I can do that in a public place.

If I just wrote “You Are Loved” in Times New Roman font in black on a white piece of paper, it’d be okay. But it would be really easy to roll your eyes. But when it’s 12 feet tall and 50 feet long, and the colors are working together in a way that only art can do—when art is doing its job, I’m banking on it making it harder for people to roll their eyes.

On keeping it interesting

In the first months that I made the project, I had kind of like a fear moment, where I thought, Oh my God! Have I set myself up to be so bored? These murals were all going to be the same words again and again. But I make each one of these different from every other one; it has to be an exploration. And the truly magical outcome of that is nine years and 110 murals later, I’m not bored at all.

On the collective process

A mural on its own can be a perfect aesthetic expression. But a mural that has been painted by a hundred people who live in that neighborhood has just broadened its own beauty. It’s a different work of art, and it’s seen differently by the community when it’s not just some stranger coming from somewhere else making a work of art and leaving.

If you’ve participated in something beautiful, it pushes back against despair. I want that day that we’re painting together to feel like heaven. I want there to be music. I want there to be food. I want it to feel like we are just celebrating. We’re living life. This is the most fun thing we could possibly be doing.

See more of Cook’s art on his website for the project.