Of Bricks and Beauty

A look at Washington's urban murals.
By DeNeen L. Brown
Sunday, May 17, 2009

Beauty always seems to fall on the lowest step of the staircase of needs. You tread on it to get to other things, such as food, shelter, safety, companionship.

Standing on the side of Bohemian Caverns on U Street NW, looking at a pair of jazz greats painted against black bricks, it seems a mistake to ignore the beauty set generously before you. Why prioritize the basic needs of humanity? Surely, we should think of needs as arranged on a wheel rather than a staircase, and consider life a circular journeby ignoring it as we pass, we are, no doubt, stepping on it.) It is a bit of artistry amid gray, urban bleakness. Murals are the flowers in the mud. You think about the line from "The Color Purple," when Shug says: "I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field and don't notice it."

Murals have the same claim to your attention. They are telling you that although you may be pulled by your collar on your way to work, or stopped at that red light for longer than you need to be, or stressed by a spat with a friend, there is something bigger than those annoying and ugly moments. Bigger than the mundane. Outdoor murals pull you into a story written on brick or concrete, an unchanging slice of a universe that offers stability and calm. The white egret with its exquisite curves and translucent wings is always craning its neck on the Southwest Waterfront. It will be craning its neck when you pass it at 8:38 a.m. and craning its neck when you are trying to get home at 11:22 p.m. No matter what somebody said to you earlier in the day, the child in that mural will always be giggling. And though you skipped U.S. history in 11th grade because you thought you knew everything, there is Carter G. Woodson, patiently explaining black history at Ninth and Rhode Island NW -- infinitely more patient than any flesh-and-blood teacher. He's there day after day -- no sick days, no substitutes -- giving the same lecture, just waiting for your gaze to drift his way.

Murals vary in artistic quality and intent. But they all shout their belief that art should be writ large across our lives, not stuffed away in books and museums. Why shouldn't the urban blanks be filled in with our dreams and aspirations? In the mural overlooking a playground in Shaw, blight is transcended, the red houses are leaning, yet never falling; swaying in a frozen dance in a happy neighborhood where the sky is always blue. In other murals throughout the city, doves fly, pyramids are built, people swim forever in swirling water. On 49th Street NE, musicians are always playing that same song, and the music comes out in bright colors, a yellow trumpet against a red wall.

Murals are signposts, telling us: Stop for a minute, look at me. I am beauty in your hurry. I am beauty between the lines in your BlackBerry. I am beauty in the path of the things you think you need more than me. No matter where you are, I am here.

Until they're not. Until one day, you turn the corner and the mural on the Bohemian Caverns wall is half-gone. Shirley Horn's face has been painted over with gray. She no longer exists. It's as though she and Miles Davis, the musician on the wall with her, went through a divorce overnight. When did this happen? you think. Who decided to cover up the mural without listening to your protests? You, who glanced upon the mural once or twice in your hurry, took it for granted while it was still there. Now, it may never be whole again. Why does it bother you? Because, while it was there, it was meeting a need.

DeNeen L. Brown is a staff writer in the Style section of The Post. She can be reached at browndl@washpost.com.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company