Shawn Dunwoody: Public Artist to Politician?

17310952_1839139612970458_8989116703045551041_oOn Shawn Dunwoody’s official campaign page he is dressed in a bright green suit with an even brighter lime green, polka-dot bow tie with a matching flower lapel pin. It doesn’t scream politics, but it does scream Shawn, a popular local artist running for City Council who has contributed considerably to the Rochester community.

A native of Rochester, Dunwoody was raised by entrepreneur parents who owned a record store. Growing up, Dunwoody wanted to a superhero. He was enthralled with cartoons and comics which sparked his interest in art. After years of drawing, Dunwoody accredited art as the connector for his identity.

“I was out doing my nonsense, as a young parent ― as a teen parent,” he said. “A lot of influences, some good some not, I got involved in but I was always still the art guy even when I was on the corner or doing something else. I did everything you would expect from a black male living in poverty with no education and no direction,” Dunwoody said.

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Dunwoody honors his mentors that gave him direction by encouraging him to pursue art. As he explained, “Even the brothers who were out there with me were like “Hey, you’re the art guy. Go do art stuff.’”

But attending Monroe Community College with three kids under five and “not having too many dollars in [his] pocket” was hard yet Dunwoody received immense support from his community. So he expressed that as an artist he wanted to give back to Rochester.

“As an adult I still wanted to be a superhero but I can’t fly or anything ― I feel as an artist I can help someone in the neighborhood or on the streets and that’s my drive now,” he said.

And Dunwoody has done a lot as a community artist. To name a few projects: Dunwoody has been the Public Art Coordinator for the City of Rochester, director for FOUR Walls art gallery, founding board member for Multi-use Community Cultural Center (MuCCC), founding member for Rochester’s Fashion Week and largest contributor to the Center for Youth. However, what Dunwoody is most known for is painting walls. Which begs the question:

How does painting walls help communities and how does it qualify him to better the city? 

“It’s simple,” he says, “It brings about beautification.”

A popular Dunwoody project is called “Words to Live By”.

“I take quotes for neighborhoods from people who live in a particular street or business and I actually put their words on buildings,” he said.

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Dunwoody explains “Words to Live By” takes the approach as advertisements, but instead he paints encouraging quotes in struggling neighborhoods and advertises positivity and self-worth to the people. Dunwoody shared an experience while he was painting “Words to Live By” that particularly stuck with him.

Confronting The Wall trailer from on Vimeo.
“A mom was walking by and her son asked what does it say and she says ‘I believe in you’. Without realizing it, by just looking at a piece of artwork she just told her son to believe in himself,” he said.

During the summer of 2015, Dunwoody employed five students from Rochester’s city schools to paint “Words to Live By” in depressed neighborhoods in Rochester, Philadelphia and Brazil. This beautification movement was called the Fruitbelt project that was later turned in a documentary film called “Confronting the Wall”.

However with all the many hats Dunwoody has worn: mentor, artist, entrepreneur. He has never before had to play the role of politician before. Yet, Dunwoody denies he has a lack of political experience. On the contrary, he claims his career as an artist is his experience in diplomacy:

“For me to be able to go into a neighborhood … listen to what the neighborhood concerns are, implement a project or program in that neighborhood and make sure I produce well on my goods and services that I set out to do. I’ve done that for almost twenty years.” 

Dunwoody’s three-tiered platform focuses on connecting communities through mentorships and recreation programs, programs to encourage entrepreneurship and boost industry through creative capital means. His platform for politics is unmistakably a rehash of his current life as a public works artist. Dunwoody admits his platform is very “personal” but also stresses that it is his experience as an artist that made him an adept “problem-solver.”

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“Let’s use education as an example… The city council can not touch education but what you can implement other programs in the rec center. You can teach digital programming, you can teach circuitry in the rec center, which I’ve done… there are other ways you can shape our future… That’s creative capital. It does connect,” he countered.

Dunwoody goes on about how other training programs and ideas that can be implemented can provide skills to youth, which will one day generate creative capital for Rochester. Dunwoody believes wholeheartedly that tapping into creative entrepreneurship is the key to bringing back industry and innovation to the city and in a city full of artists, musicians and innovative youth, it doesn’t hurt to believe in the young people. Dunwoody claims society has disconnected artists from problem-solving but cites that all scientists, architects and thinkers were artists. They had unique problems and found creative ways to solve them.

“I find there’s power in being a creative thinker and creative problem solver,” he said.

Whether being an artist will gel as smoothly into the political arena as Dunwoody thinks it will is still up for debate. What isn’t is Dunwoody’s contribution to Rochester’s culture and youth over the last twenty years. City Council might be too much a stretch from public works artist or it might be a perfect start for a new face of politics in Rochester. Who’s to decide?


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