Reading Murals – Telling Stories

The power of stories—whether telling our own, listening to those of others, or building them from our imagination—has a deep connection to human development and learning. Telling stories allows us to learn about ourselves, but it is also an act of “mutual creation involving interactions and understanding between teller and listener” (1).  For museums, storytelling can tap into personal, cultural, and family-based dimensions of learning that have the potential to create more meaningful experiences.

During a recent advanced institute organized by the CoLab and National Writing Project sites in 3 states (Piasa Bluffs Writing Project at SIUE, South Coast Writing Project at UCSB, and Gateway Writing Project at UMSL), a multiprofessional community of educators experimented with storytelling as a way to engage with a 1932 mural by Mexican artist David Siqueiros—now in the collection of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.  The hard-hitting subjects depicted in the mural connect with the realities of Mexican politics at the time, with Siqueiros delineating the cause and result of the corruption of the administration of Mexican president Plutarco Elias Calles [more information about the mural can be found through the Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s online resource].  This quite somber and personal mural by Siqueiros seemed to lend itself to a more personal form of exploration, so we engaged with the piece through a series of strategies that included various forms of storytelling — creating stories with words and sharing stories with our bodies.

After spending time looking at the mural and navigating the architectural space in which it exists, our group of teachers and educators were asked to focus in on details within the piece and create a series of quick sketches.  We then spread our sketches out across the floor for everyone to explore, and individuals were invited to select one sketch (not their own) that they might connect with a meaningful story.  Those sketches then launched each person into writing a story informed by a close study of that drawn response, adding words directly on top of the sketch.  Here are some excerpts from those stories:

P’s Story Sketch

P: “A woman who has seen much – who endured much and who is still open to what life has to offer. She opens her hand, gesturing for those who will give to her, a sensing that life has come today in the form of men with guns. She can hold her own in the face of those things that may seem as if they could cause harm. She holds her knee to her chest and it brings comfort to her. She feels stable and centered while around her she is surrounded by a man who frowns, who has, without emotion of any kind, shot his neighbor as directed. She has witnessed the death of others not once, but many times….”

S: “The sun now shines on part of this street. Most people, most faces are still in shadows. Later today, later this year, later this century, the light will shine on the whole village, allowing the whole world to see what we all wish could have stayed covered up or better yet, could have never happened.”

Story-writing became story-telling as participants verbally shared their own stories with each other in small groups, working together to select one “critical moment” from their stories to explore more deeply.  Each group wrote down their selected “critical moment” on a sheet of paper, and we then moved down to the sidewalk to physicalize these moments through Image Theatre exercises [read more about Image Theatre in the Teaching Tools section].

To launch into this process of bodily learning, I selected a couple of volunteers to model a technique called “body storming”—the physical equivalent to brainstorming. In “body storming,” participants are invited to silently (communicating only with physical gestures or facial expressions) and rapidly create a series of body shapes or group poses in response to a prompt.  For this exercise, I invited each group to body storm the “critical moment” pulled from their stories.  Groups spread out along the sidewalk adjacent to the busy State Street that runs in front of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and they explored their stories through this theatre and movement strategy.  After they body-stormed through their ideas, each group was asked to build a single movement composition to perform for the entire group.

To create a space for the performances, we all formed a circle around our new public “street theatre” venue here in Santa Barbara, interrupting the flow of pedestrians (several whom stopped to peek at what we were up to). Each group shared their group pose or movement, and I jumped in to play the Joker — a concept coming directly from Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed that authorizes the Joker and spectators to make changes to the performance.  In this strategy, spectators become “spect-actors,” according to Boal, and they are empowered to transform the performance in a variety of ways.  For these group performances, we invited “spect-actors” to add themselves to the group pose, change something about it, or make new connections beyond the group’s story (to people’s own lived experiences, for example).

After each group shared their performances (and were subject to the wild card actions of the Joker and “spect-actors”), we returned up the steps to the Siqueiros mural for final reflective writing and processing. After engaging our bodies in new ways, this gave participants some time to allow their minds to let the experience soak in and reconnect with the visual images that sparked our creative explorations. The stories we had explored, envisioned, and enacted as a community of learners brought Siqueiros’s images into our own professional and personal lives … and brought our lives into the faces and stories of that powerful mural.

Reposted through the National Writing Project’s Digital Is website.


1. C. Abramson, “Storytelling as a Pedagogical Tool in Higher Education,” Education 118 (1998), p. 441.

5 thoughts on “Reading Murals – Telling Stories”

  1. As a participant in this activity, I was tuned in to the physical nature of a two-dimensional mural, and through Mike’s careful guidance I looked at the ways in which the images unfolded in the painting through color, texture and line. I found the addition of the story-telling and the bodystorming was very powerful for me and connected me to the mural in deep ways. As I moved into the process of individually creating story, and followed by an invitation to co-select a story and enact it, I found I was moving into the intensely human experience of being with others and physically forming three dimensional images. Suddenly, I realized that for the observers of my body-storming, I was the static representation of so much. As I returned to the mural, I looked with new eyes at the Siquieros images as pointing to deep culture and history. I felt the active lives represented on the wall in front of me, brief moments in a rich flow of being. This was both memorable and powerful. I can’t help but think that I might have looked briefly at this mural and moved on, had it not been for the attentiveness of Mike to mediate my learning through holding my hand through exploring, envisioning, and enacting.

  2. The various activities we did with the Siquieros mural made it come “alive” for me. First we studied it and wrote lists of the things we saw in the mural. Next we made 3 quick sketches from the mural. We displayed our sketches for one another and created a gallery. We selected someone’s sketch and wrote a story based on the sketch. Then we formed a small group and shared the stories we wrote. As a group we selected a “critical moment” from one of our stories, and as a group we created a body storming piece that we performed in a makeshift “theater in the round” on the sidewalk in front of the museum. The audience- our colleagues, gave feedback after each body storming scene was performed. All these activities really helped me to connect with the Siquieros mural and was quite a memorable way to learn more about the piece.

  3. Ann and Judy — thank you for such great reflections on the experience. Each time I set out to facilitate an experience with a work of art, I always aspire to build something “intensely human” and “personal” that can activate art in new and surprising ways. After this interdisciplinary mash-up, as we’ve begun to call the process, I think my attention has been drawn to 2 key elements of the learning experience for us all.

    The first is the element of collaborative inquiry, in which we approach the work as a group of fellow inquirers. This collaborative process has the potential to deepen our own experience with the artwork as we gain from others’ understanding and perspectives. The second is the element of performative inquiry in which we use our bodies to make our learning become more tangible. I have always been drawn to movement and theatre-based strategies, but this experience went somewhere new — perhaps because we isolated the physical/bodily process from the verbal (as everyone was asked to be silent during the body-storming process).

    Both of these elements were heightened through the storytelling process, and all of these elements of the multidimensional process opened up a space for us to explore learning. And through this current exchange, I think we really have the opportunity to extend our own understanding of this process, and then loop it back through in order to explore, envision, and enact in a new landscape, on a new day, with a new group of inquirers.

  4. Moving from casual observer to an engaged partner with the mural brought new dimension and understanding to this artwork and, more broadly, to learning. Being directed to notice and then notice again with a smaller lens initiated thinking and wondering which would not have occurred with a casual walk-by. Mike’s layering of experiences allowed for individual responses to be broadened by sharing and learning from others’ perspectives. The ease of flow or “breathing” of activities allowed for the inhale of personal perspective later to be exhaled through paired/whole group exchanges, thereby opening new pathways for empathizing with stories captured in the eyes of those embedded within the artwork. Channeling thinking through listing, sketching, writing, sharing, pinpointing a critical moment, physical representation, and the joker pathed the way for unfolding understanding. The careful crafting of these actions highlighted the significance of making connections through human experiences.

  5. I love the metaphor of “breathing” that we connected to this experience as we migrated back and forth between personal and collaborative inquiring. Really highlights the “human” element of learning (esp. how you describe it, Dawn).

Share Your Perspective & Add to the Conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.