The Hot Seat: Amy Sananman


    Welcome to the Hot Seat, where we interview folks involved in Brooklyn real estate, architecture, development and the like. Introducing Amy Sananman, the founder and director of Groundwell Community Mural Project. Groundswell is a Brooklyn-based nonprofit organization that brings artists, youth and community organizations together to create public art projects across NYC. Her head shot is by collage artist Brian Adam Douglas.

    Brownstoner: Where do you live, and how did you end up there?
    Amy Sananman: I live in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. My husband and I bought a house there a decade ago. It kind of feels like living in the country – especially when our dog caught a rooster that fell into our yard.

    BS: What is Groundswell Community Mural Project and how did you come to found it?
    AS: Groundswell is a Brooklyn-based nonprofit. Our mission is to bring together professional artists, grassroots organizations and communities to create high quality murals in under-represented neighborhoods and inspire youth to take active ownership of their future by equipping them with the tools necessary for social change. Over the past fifteen years Groundswell has worked with thousands of community members to complete more than 300 collaboratively designed and painted murals across New York City.

    In 1996 I was working as a tenant organizer with low-income residents of city-owned properties who were organizing to convert their buildings into cooperatives, which they would then manage themselves. Despite the great swell of activity and organizing occurring within these buildings, the work was indiscernible from the street. I thought it important to bring that community activism from the walls inside to the walls outside. Public art provided the perfect vehicle for showing the swell of activity that came from the core or base of an individual, group or community. Serendipity led me to the great muralist, Joe Matunis, who taught me how to do a community mural and became one of our founding board members.

    In the absence of such a group in New York City, a group of artists, educators and activists founded Groundswell based on the belief that there is something unique and powerful about the community mural making process, which combines the sanctity of personal expression with the strength of community activism. Groundswell’s programs are based on principles of individual, group and community development. Collaborating with communities and fostering community activism, we strive to physically and mentally build up the individual, group or community during the making of the mural. A groundswell is a sudden surge of growth or a wave of energy surfacing from beneath the ocean. At Groundswell—we support the energy and stories hidden behind walls to be expressed on the walls.

    After the jump, Amy talks about specific Groundswell projects, the effect public art has on the neighborhood and lists a few favorite murals in Brooklyn…

    BS: Groundswell emphasizes the possibility of using art for social change. Can you talk about some specific projects that really illustrate its potential for that kind of change?
    AS: Currently a team of youth from Groundswell’s after school program are partnering with Domestic Workers United to create banners to raise awareness around their current campaign. The team is charged with researching, designing and creating three banners for Domestic Workers United aimed at calling attention to the importance of care-giving in the Park Slope community and promoting respect and dignity for domestic workers and care-recipients. The process will engage all the aforementioned constituent groups and result in banners to help call attention to this important campaign.

    Another great example that comes to mind is a public art campaign designed this summer by our Voices Her’d Visionaries, Groundswell’s group of exceptional young women. The girls were interested in promoting awareness of healthy relationships in our age of sexting, cyberbullying, and defriending. They worked with Day One to research teen dating violence and prevention, and then launched a public art campaign called “Love Should Always Be Safe.” The girls created eight awesome original posters and distributed them to NYC public schools for thousands of their peers to see. You can learn more about the project firsthand by visiting the Visionaries’ blog.

    BS: A lot of factors come together to get a mural to work: the artists, youth, community organizations, the right public space. Can you talk about how you get a team together for a specific space? What is the dynamic you see emerge between groups of people as they work together on a mural?
    AS: That is a great question. You are absolutely right. Every project requires a numbers of pieces: a community partner to help inform the project’s content, a team of youth, a willing wall owner, funders and our artists. These are pretty disparate groups and it is wonderful when they can all work together toward a common goal. Lemonade is often involved!

    BS: Public art also has a drastic effect on the neighborhood it exists in, and the people who happen to pass by it day by day. How are the murals a reaction or perhaps interaction with the public space it exists in? In your opinion, how can public art shape a neighborhood?
    AS: Much public art just ‘appears’ and the process of making it is hidden from the public. Socially-engaged public art can be an unexpectedly rich lighten rod. This is particularly true for Groundswell’s projects because the public gets to see real people out on the street making art.

    Groundswell’s unique process also affords opportunities for local neighbors to get involved in the artmaking itself. When researching a project, our youth artists spend a lot of time getting to know the neighborhood and the people who live there. We also host public presentations of each mural design, where members of the community can see the design in process and have the opportunity to question, challenge, provoke, encourage, and engage our artists. And, of course, we hope everyone will come out and pick up a paint brush during community painting days. Through this process, we’ve seen over and over again how public art can activate space and convert it into a meaningful respite. It can inspire reflection, controversy or pride.

    BS: Can you list some murals in Brooklyn associated with Groundswell?
    AS: We have over 100 murals in Brooklyn alone. To find one near you, go here.
    Here are just a few faves:
    Some Walls Are Invisible in Red Hook; Stop Look Listen in Sunset Park;
    Piece Out, Peace In in Crown Heights.

    Peace Out, Peace In

    Some Walls Are Invisible

    We also host walking and bus tours. If Brownstoner readers are interested, they should connect with us at

    BS: Finally, your favorites: Favorite BK neighborhood, favorite BK property/building, and favorite public art piece in BK.
    AS: Favorite hood: Sunset Park (love the one you’re with!)
    Favorite building: Loving Groundswell’s new studio on President between 4th and 3rd—it hums with productivity and good energy.
    Favorite public art: Are you kidding? How can I choose?

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