Healing and empowering the world – one art project at a time | Teachers College Columbia University

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Healing and empowering the world – one art project at a time

Like the murals he facilitates, Max Levi Frieder is not about small


Though still in his 20s, Max Levi Frieder, international artist and founder of Artolution – an international community-based public arts network dedicated to participatory, collaborative art making – has already spearheaded over 200 projects across 15 countries, from New Zealand to Colombia to the Syrian-Jordanian border. At TC, where he is an Ed.M. student in the Art & Art Education program, Frieder is wasting no time expanding what he has already done to an even grander scale.

Basically, Frieder is using the arts to do everything from sharing opportunities for global communication in marginalized communities to healing trauma in war zones to promoting reconciliation in communities torn apart by ethnic conflict. His projects include:

  • a series of huge murals colorfully painted by aboriginal students with a mobile dialysis unit in Central Australia and the Yarrabah rainforest in Northern Australia;
  • a 10-meter canvas bearing images of hope for the rebuilding of Syria that 60 Syrian boys painted in the Azraq Syrian Refugee Camp in northern Jordan while it was attached to a chain link and barbed wire fence – and subsequently divided into smaller pieces for display at an international exhibition of the European Union in Brussels with the NGO aptART;
  • and “El Monstro de Musica,” a three-headed “Foundstrument Soundstrument Community Percussion Instrument,” a collective art project built from recycled trash by members of the indigenous Huichol community in Western Mexico. Frieder describes these “soundstrument” projects, which he has been leading since his undergraduate days as a student at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), as “the process of creating a large-scale percussion instrument that transforms found objects into a durable and interactive social structure that becomes a permanent gift to the community.”

The works Frieder helps orchestrate burst with the same larger-than-life luminosity he radiates in person. Saturated with broad strokes of color that never quite seem to stand still, his art installations embody a powerful sense that no matter what the reality of day-to-day life in any single place, all things are still possible.

“Over the years I’ve cultivated this process that focuses on trauma relief and community empowerment, and how collaborative art through large-scale cooperation can be a way to have a community come together to create art for themselves,” he says. “Rather than having an artist coming in and creating something for them, it’s having people in a community of all generations come together to create something for themselves.”

Last summer, Frieder and his Artolution partner, Joel Bergner, spearheaded the creation of a Plexiglas mural at the U.S. Consul General in Jerusalem, painted by Israeli and Palestinian students from the city’s Hand in Hand School. The school had made international headlines when it was attacked by arsonists in late 2014. The State Department’s news magazine describes the mural – which is over 60 feet long and weighs more than 200 pounds – as “not just a pretty painting, but a depiction of the troubled past and hopeful future for the Middle East.” The mural is now on display in the US consulate’s entrance where, the magazine notes, “each day hundreds of people from varying ethnic, religious and political groups pass through the visitor’s area to apply for U.S. visas and passports or other consular services. They can now stop to admire the mural and see the message that coexistence is possible.”

Frieder may seem to be everywhere, but after roaming the world for five straight years – “I haven’t lived in one place for more than three months” – the Colorado native says he started to realize that this “is not a sustainable long term lifestyle” and began trying to figure out a way to transform his growing international network of artists, NGOs and community groups into a lasting financial and organizational structure that would survive far into the future.

Frieder ultimately decided that the environment and resources available through a Master’s program could help him toward that goal. When he discovered TC’s Ed.M. concentration in Community Arts, he knew he’d found a home. Being in New York, which he describes as “the center of the sociopolitical, ethnographic and media contemporary world,” near a multitude of potential partner organizations, has been an added bonus. At TC, he has worked with Judith Burton, Professor of Art Education, to systematically measure the impact of his past projects with an eye toward securing funding for future undertakings.


“Max arrived on our doorstep, so to speak, as we are beginning to formalize our community arts project and since he brings with him such a wealth of wonderful experience, he is already helping us to chart some new directions for our efforts,” says Burton. “He is in all ways a true collaborator with an entrepreneurial spirit – warm, funny, brave and caring.”


Yet just because Frieder has found a home base in New York doesn’t mean he’ll stay put for very long. In January, he will travel to India to work with Bergner on a series of projects in Okhla, Delhi’s largest slum, home to more than 1million people. Then, as part of a team involved in dissertation research for a fellow TC student, he’s off to Peru to paint a series of murals with girls at an orphanage in the largest slum in Lima, and to a remote orphanage in the Peruvian jungle.

“The long-term goal of all this is to develop a network of international community-based public artists through which I and people I have trained to do these public-engagement projects can in turn train local people to be able to continue to facilitate sustainable programming,” Frieder says. “It doesn’t have to be murals – it can be theater, poetry, puppetry, all sorts of artistic action. And I don’t want it just to be Americans or westerners, but local people who live in a community and initiate new projects on an ongoing basis.”

As though that were not a lofty enough goal, Frieder has one more dream up his sleeve: for the past 15 years he has been thinking about bicycling from Vietnam to Ghana – a trek encompassing 35 different nations – and stopping in communities along the way to facilitate murals and promote cross-cultural interaction. As preparation for this, he may even stay on at TC to explore the experience in a doctoral dissertation.

“Max has already offered us models of extraordinary community collaborations made possible through the arts that challenge us at TC to envision these and our future efforts in this direction in terms of ‘education beyond the classroom,’” Burton says. “Not only are the murals he inspires aesthetically magnificent, they are also trenchant commentaries on lives and relationships that radiate beyond their makers enticing others to reflect deeply on the world in which they live. With Max among us who knows what the future might hold – the possibilities are expansive and exciting.” – Ellen Livingston


Published Thursday, Dec 24, 2015

Frieder 1
Photo Credit: Max Levi Frieder, www.artolution.org
Frieder 2
Photo Credit: Max Levi Frieder, www.artolution.org
Frieder 3
Photo Credit: Max Levi Frieder, www.artolution.org
Max Levi Frieder
Max Levi Frieder