HOPE is back atop the Veterans Memorial Building in downtown Cedar Rapids.
The first HOPE mural erected there — created by artists in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and Iraq — beckoned passersby last June, during the 11th anniversary of the Floods of 2008. This year’s four-panel mural, created by artists in Cedar Rapids and Cuba, is shining as a beacon of hope during the coronavirus pandemic, and will be on view at least through Sunday.
The project is a part of unifying quest for Jason Everett, 40, of Cedar Rapids, who has traveled to some of the most vulnerable places on the globe during his military service and as a world traveler and resident. Both mural projects seek to make connections between artists at home and in areas of geopolitical strife, as well as for all who see the uplifting message.
“I’ve always learned a lot from my travels, and being with people of other cultures has really enriched me as a person,” said Everett, an Army veteran who was deployed to the Middle East, has lived in Israel and the West Bank, and now is a staff sergeant and medic in the Iowa National Guard. “I’ve filled up a few passports.”
He’s currently part of the COVID-19 war at home, he said, “collecting data for the Iowa Department of Public Health and military leaders (who) are working together, collecting data and seeing how best to support local health care services, and provide data and information for different levels of government.”
He has done other community engagement projects in the places he’s visited, including taking skateboards to Cuba in 2017. His return trip to the island nation in December 2019 not only continued the mural project, but also involved taking kites and marbles to hand out to children playing in the streets. He toted 50 pounds donated by The American Toy Marble Museum in Akron, Ohio, and even more made by Christopher Gray, an instructor in the glassmaking program at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids.
Everett also packed art supplies, which are in short supply in Cuba, as well as two completed 4-feet by 7-feet canvases and two blank ones needed to complete the HOPE letters.
The skateboards, marbles and graffiti-inspired mural art knit together Everett’s love of taking it to the streets.
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“I’ve always had an affection for street art and graffiti,” he said. “I also like to connect people through art.”
Finding the artists
He casts a wide net through emails and Facebook messages to find his collaborators.
“If I see something that catches my eye, that’s interesting about somebody that connects with me or connects with the project, I just reach out to people,” he said. “I’ve joked around that I’ve probably had an 8 percent success rate for all the emails and messages I send to people, but I’ve been very fortunate to connect with just the right special people.”
On the local front, he connected with Cedar Rapids artists Julius Cavira (H) and Scott Takes (O), and in Cuba, artists Yunier Guerrero (P) and Che’ Pando (E).
The fifth artist is the unsung hero of the group — Scott Droessler of Cedar Rapids, a 26-year Iowa National Guard veteran and founder of the Community of Artists and Veterans art studio in the Veterans Memorial Building.
“He is the one who really helps keep these projects together,” Everett said, noting that Droessler prepares the canvases for the artists, adds the finishing coat and “has been influential” in getting the murals displayed on the Veterans Building. Once attached to a reusable metal frame, they create a 7-foot-by-16-foot mural. It then takes a couple people from the building’s facilities staff to hoist it into place, using a pulley system.
Everett had heard of Cavira, a fellow veteran, from other artist friends. “I like his style,” Everett said, as well as his free spirit and the diversity of his artistry.
Searching the internet under “graffiti” and “street art,” he found Takes and his Underground Art Studio in Cedar Rapids. That was the connection he was looking for.
”He’s a very benevolent artist and given a lot of his work for good causes,” Everett said.
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And the story of his “O” made Everett want to cry. Takes was kicking around several ideas for his painting, then began looking for a photo showing his hand and his daughter’s hand making a heart. After searching high and low, he finally found it among his late father’s files. He finished the painting on his father’s birth date, just days before Everett left for Cuba.
“He created something really meaningful and beautiful and impactful for him,” Everett said.
Finding Cuban artists isn’t as easy, since the government controls the internet. So Everett turned to his friend Pando, hailed as the “Godfather of Cuban Skateboarding” and a pioneer of tattoo artistry on the island. Even though he hasn’t painted for a decade or more, he agreed to participate.
Then after poring over countless stories online, Everett found an article about Guerrero, with photos of him painting a canvas with his son. One particular quote sealed the deal: “I have a theme in my work that includes windows, which represent hope and all things positive. I always paint these windows and beautiful atmospheres while hoping that one day I will be known around the world as the painter of windows.”
“His hope resonated with me,” Everett said. Since Guerrero doesn’t speak English and Everett’s Spanish is rusty, they managed to communicate by using Google Translate. “I thought this would be a great opportunity for him to realize his hope in this piece he created,” Everett said.
When the final two canvases were finished in Havana, Everett, a photographer, wanted to display the mural in various spots around the city and take some quick photos.
“We had to be careful about it, because it definitely could have gotten confiscated, and actually almost did on the way out of the country,” Everett said.
They wanted to find iconic places, like they had in Iraq, where they got permission to put up that first mural.
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“This time, we had to, in very hasty ways, put the mural up in a couple places to get an iconic picture,” including a high point that overlooks Havana, managing to place the mural so the city is shown behind it. They found another spot in the Old City, across the street from Guerrero’s shop.
“That was just kind of fun, too, because you could see how people were interacting with this art — people stopping, people admiring it, engaging with it. So we nailed into a wall, took pictures, the kids came and took pictures with it, and neighbors and travelers (too),” Everett said.
“That’s my intent. I really want it to be, as much as possible, a mutual giving relationship where everyone receives from being a part of this.
“What I hope to give is the picture and the experience of somebody’s art traveling. So for Scott Takes and Julius Cavira, now their art has traveled to Havana, Cuba, where it may never have been. And then, Yunier Guerrero, who wants to be known throughout the world as a painter of windows, now he’s on Facebook and The Gazette, and on top of one of our most iconic buildings. And the same thing with Che’ (Pando),” Everett said.
In the future, he’d like to create collaborations between artists in the United States and Afghanistan, then do the same with artists in Israel and Palestine.
“I am really the greatest recipient in the midst of all this,” Everett said. “These artists were just really incredible — incredible artists but even better people.”
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