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Karen Kelly: A Rocket for Peace


When Kelly isn't working as a psychotherapist in Concord, New Hampshire, she's traveling around the region and the world, coordinating public mural projects. Murals, she says, are a great way to bring people together and help them define their shared values. She's done quite a few in American towns and schools, and she's also worked in some of the world's trouble spots, including Northern Ireland, the Middle East, and Latin America. The title of her chapter comes from her first visit to Belfast, when a local resident referred to her as a "rocket," local slang for a crazy person. She took it as a compliment. Here's a passage from her story. 

How does a non-artist coordinate a mural? Well, in a way, it's better to be a non-artist. If she was an artist, her own vision might get in the way.


As a therapist, in fact, she may have the ideal skills. Kelly sees a clear relationship between therapy and her mural work:  "I have sat with people who are willing to pay a lot of money to change. They really, really want to change. But time and time again, they don't change. And I realize that change is very, very hard.  


"If you take that to a community level, change becomes even harder. What works is to create a vision and hold that vision out in front of them, so it pulls them forward into a new place. I really like how a mural does that. People see it every day. It helps you remember who you want to be." 


Kelly's role is to draw out the group's values, and help translate them into imagery. "We start with a brainstorming session. Then we divide into small groups. [After that,] everybody has to report back."


It's remarkable, she says, how often the small groups produce ideas that work well together: "I'll go around looking at all the different groups, and the similarities are obvious. It just becomes an issue of, how do they tie together visually?"


After that, a "design refine team" hones the ideas into a coherent whole -- with a strict duty to stay true to the process. Then, they break out the paint.   


You might wonder if decorating walls is the best way to foster peace in a troubled community. Well, so has Kelly. "There have been times when I've looked at the people who are building houses, they are on the ground in some concrete, tangible way. I've felt like, compared to that, my work seems a bit foo-foo."


But over and over again, she has witnessed the two-tiered impact of a mural project. First, the creative process helps build a sense of community. Then, the finished product -- a wall-sized statement of values -- helps reinforce those values. 

Read the rest of her story in my book, including her homebody childhood in Dayton, Ohio, and her attempt to land a community-building job in Baghdad.
Listen to my interview with Kelly, recorded in December 2001 at New Hampshire Public Radio.
Read an excerpt from our interview, in which she talks about how she got involved in public murals and how she coordinates a project.  

Contact me at john (at) johnswalters (dot) com