Mark Making began in January of 2009, as the synthesis of ideas and questions that came to Founder and Executive Director, Frances McDonald, during her years as a professional painter. While working in her New York studio in the early 1990s, she began to wonder about the relevance of her work and its contribution to the community.
At the time, Keith Haring’s playful images had become a mainstay of the New York subway system. The perception of his work had transformed from that of a civic nuisance to that of a familiar visual language bridging the erudite art world to most New Yorkers’ daily experience. The concept of graffiti held new possibilities as an art form. With public spaces as the canvas, new definitions of art had room to emerge in a much wider context. Inspired by this, and Jean-Michael Basquiat’s more politically charged work, McDonald began to think about making public art that would serve its community while providing visual enhancement. While McDonald continued painting in her studio, the seeds of what would become Mark Making were germinating.
In the following years, McDonald experienced several major health crises and returned to her hometown of Chattanooga. With all of her plans and assumptions stripped away, she began a new phase of her career with a fresh perspective. Her dreams of serving the community with art did not abate.
She began teaching art classes to diverse populations and found that as she taught, she learned, especially from children and underserved segments of the population. McDonald was amazed at the beauty, authenticity and universality the work achieved. Still more questions emerged: why were these artists considered less talented than professionals?
In 1998 the City of Chattanooga was looking for artists to paint construction boards on a dilapidated downtown building awaiting renovation. The pay was next to nothing, and the project was daunting in scope. In a somewhat desperate measure, the three artists commissioned for the project (including McDonald) asked the city’s Recreation Centers to send 130 children to paint. After an ad-hoc class in the parking lot, each child painted a life sized self-portrait. The result was a stunning visual parade. McDonald realized that the creation of public art gave the children a sense ownership in their community and that, in turn, fostered responsible citizenship. The mural provided an often unheard segment of the population with a voice and a powerful way to impact the community.
In the next project, McDonald understood that the site itself played an active role. She had dreamed (literally) of a painted “don’t drink and drive” public service message on the exterior of a liquor store. She found teens that had suffered the consequences of drinking and driving and convinced a local liquor store to let the group paint the façade. The teens painted crashed cars with dead victims and included personal texts.
Over the following decade, McDonald worked on many collaborative mural making endeavors with diverse populations and on a wide variety of surfaces. In addition, she wrote grants for nonprofits and schools to fund the projects.
Convinced that collaborative art executed in a public context was a valid and valuable genre, McDonald created Mark Making. Its vision: to provide a formal vehicle to empower and transform disadvantaged communities through professionally-led public art projects.
Today, Mark Making makes community-based public art by connecting professional artists with underserved participants (e.g. the mentally ill, the homeless, the incarcerated, the economically disadvantaged, children and teens). At Mark Making, it is assumed that creativity is teachable to anyone and the rewards immense. As economist and philosopher, Daniel Pink, notes:
The last few decades have belonged to a certain kind of person with a certain kind of mind –computer programmers who could crank code, lawyers who could craft contracts, MBAs who could crunch numbers. But the keys to the kingdom are changing hands. The future belongs to a very different person with a very different kind of mind —creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers. These people —artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers —will now reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys.
Mark Making proudly accepts Pink’s challenge to be the “meaning makers” of society and hopes you will join by getting involved in this fun and meaningful work.