Art and Poetry Find a Home in Miami

When poets and artists join forces, a community is transformed

Above: Photo by Chantal Lawrie

On May 5, under the zestful Miami Sun, Miami Beach Senior High student Valentina Mena read her poem in front of an audience of peers, school administrators and local officials. Written in Spanish and in English, the poem captured Mena’s experience of migrating from her home in Argentina to her new home in South Florida. 

“I’m living the music of them

and recording moments so I won’t forget

but sometimes it’s hard to adapt…

But people here feels like a family’s part

finding my home in every voice that I hear.

That last line in particular resonated with Boa Mistura, a multidisciplinary team born in Madrid with roots in graffiti. Boa Mistura’s oeuvre includes numerous murals around the world, always including text from people in the community where their projects are realized as an element. At their core, the team holds fast onto the idea of urban art as a powerful tool to connect with people. Their philosophy: “It is in a public space, and there are no filters that turn the work into something for an elite or a small group of people.”

This was what attracted Scott Cunningham to their work. As executive director of O, Miami, an organization with a mission of building community around poetry, Cunningham was energized. “From ideation to execution to celebration, these projects made space for people to be authors of their own public artwork, and that resonated with what we try to do at O, Miami,” Cunningham said.

Throughout the year, O, Miami collected poems all over the city through educational opportunities. While teaching poetry at Miami Beach Senior High, they gathered over 200 poems, which they shared with Boa Mistura for review. Boa Mistura was taken by Valentina Mena’s in particular. “In her [Valentina’s] words, there is a certain emotional melancholy of someone who seeks to integrate into a new place and finds ties of connection in many ways and in different places, for example, listening to someone speaking your language abroad,” said Boa Mistura. “We thought that a nice way to portray the bilingual spirit of the city was to work one tank in Spanish and one in English. They are different worlds, but they coexist on a daily basis and are intimately related.”

What followed was an arduous process of preparation for a public art project in the form of a mural that would activate the school’s two 3-million-gallon water storage tanks that flanked the campus. Before this project, the tanks were uninspiring and bare; according to Miami Beach Vice Mayor Ricky Arriola, “an ugly shade of gray” under the sun. “It just dawned on me that the kids have to look at this every single day, let alone our public works department. We can do better. If we’re truly going to be an arts and culture city, we need to put our money where our mouth is.” 

Passionate about the arts himself, Arriola welcomed the idea of an artistic project that would embellish the water tanks and inspire the students when they stepped outside. Mayor of Miami Beach Dan Gelber felt similarly inspired. “You can’t really have a great education if you don’t give young people an opportunity to channel their creativity, to give them an opportunity to do something artistic or something inspirational,” he said, adding that in Miami Beach, art and culture are wanted and necessary because “it is the best way to let a community share in experiences …” 

The students participated in the painting process as well, rolling out paint rollers and brushes to collaborate on sections of the mural with Boa Mistura. The entire project took the artists a total of two and a half weeks to complete. Together, the tanks hold under the Miami-sky-like jewels, resplendent in various hues of blues and purple and green here and there, but also bright yellows and reds, as if to mimic the kaleidoscope of colors that is Miami. One tank featured the words My Home in English, and the other displayed the words in Spanish, Mi Hogar

This carried significance for O, said Miami Communications Director Melissa Gomez: “What I love most about My Home, Mi Hogar is that when you witness this mural, I want people to understand that it came from a person and her lived experience,” said Gomez. “What O, Miami aims to accomplish is creating work that involves communities at every step of the way, and we’re so grateful to Boa Mistura sharing in that collaborative spirit.”

O, Miami leaves its mark all over this city, from teaching poetry in schools, to hosting month-long poetry festivals, and even publishing local Miamians’ poems in public places like fences, buses, gas stations, even billboards. Their 12th annual poetry festival featured several large-scale civic publishing projects, generative writing workshops, site-specific events and readings throughout Miami-Dade County this past month,with more than 40 activations across the city’s most iconic spaces and neighborhoods. 

The festival’s aim was to have each resident encounter a poem during the month of April. Evidently, believing in the transformative power of poetry led them to harvest the best out of students like Valentina Mena, who, after migrating away from her home, is now proud and hopeful when she looks up at her own words on the brightly painted walls of these water tanks. 

“This piece of art will always remind me that adversities happen so that we can learn important lessons, and that one can transform it to something beautiful,” Mena said.

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