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A simple Question,  A Multitude of Answers.  by Jeremiah Horrigan <jeremiahhorrigan@gmail.com>

Kelli Bickman’s first attempt at creating a public art project was almost comically misunderstood.

It was six years ago and Bickman was living in Peekskill, NY. She’d been awarded a grant to create a mural on a city facade. She put out a community notice, hoping to attract young people to the project. 

And she did. On the appointed day, four young people -- three young men and a young woman ranging in age from 17 to 20 -- arrayed in gangsta regalia, skilled in graffiti and street artistry, showed up to give her the once-over.

Bickman, a slender young multi-media artist who exudes 1,000-watt enthusiasm when she talks about her many art projects, explained to the foursome what she wanted them to help her do -- paint an eight by 36-foot mural. When she was finished, they looked at each other in surprise.

“They thought I was an undercover cop trying to entrap them,” Bickman recently recalled.

The four joined Bickman’s community paint brigade.

“They became the champion artists,” she said with a smile. “And mentors to the younger students.”

The mural took the better part of a year to complete. It galvanized the community, giving a dismal city a bright new look, as well as serving as a launching pad for three of her champions: two went off to college and a third went to work for visionary artist Alex Grey.

Bickman's experience confirmed Bickman’s lifelong conviction that if you want to do something badly enough, the universe will find a way to help you achieve your goal. A person’s thoughts, she believes, create their reality.

Bickman, who now lives and works in a sprawling space in the center of the tiny Village of Saugerties, NY, is an artistic polymath. Her works grace the private collections of author Neil Gaiman, singer-songwriter Tori Amos and humanitarian Meera Ghandi.  She’s also created her own clothing line of wearable art and is a veteran of a clutch of other public art projects.

Her last public project is a nine by 36-foot mural originally designed for display in Woodstock, NY to celebrate World Peace Day 2015. As in Peekskill, she looked for and found scores of people to contribute their thoughts, images and experiences in answer to the question "What does peace mean to you?"

World Peace Day — also known as The International Day of Peace —  is celebrated very year n Sep 21. It was established in 1981 by resolution of the United Nation and is edicated to strengthening the ideals of peace, both within and among all nations and peoples. 

Every year, there’s the hope that the day will somehow be the occasion for temporary ceasefires across the globe, a hope that is annually overwhelmed by the endless variety of wars, rebellions and attacks the world has to offer.

The mural was created on a vast canvas sheet spread across the hardwood floor of a 5,000-square-foot space that used to be an Oddfellows Temple. Artists, arts groups, children and adults have already contributed their answers to the project’s question.

Amid the hundreds of contributions of drawings, prayers and poems from adults and children from around the world, the contributions of several children from places in the world where peace is a distant memory stand out:

“I want game maker, and I want to have a country without captures. I am afraid of losing hopes about my country.” -- Dana Muhammad Rasheed, 13, Kirkuk, Iraq.

I want to see my country rescued from war and terror and I hope to become a police officer in future to safe my country from terror and do good deeds.  I love peace and I hate terror.”   -- Ari Kakawla Ali, 13, Kirkuk, Iraq

Bickman took the mural to Salt Lake City for exhibition at the Parliament for World Religions conference Oct 2015 where ore than 10,000 people from 80 countries and 50 faith witnessed it.

All world religions are represented in this project.

It’s pure serendipity that Bickman should find and forward these statements of yearning among the hundreds of contributions she’s already attracted to the mural. Maybe there’s an echo there of those four inner-city kids checking out the “undercover cop” who helped turn their lives around six years ago in Peekskill. Maybe their testimonies will bring a bit of light to the world, or even to their own lives. Maybe not. But Bickman would be the first to tell you that in war and peace, in Peekskill, Saugerties or Kirkuk, the universe has a way of working in strange and sometimes wonderful ways.

Jeremiah Horrigan is a freelance writer whose essays and stories have appeared over the years in The New York Times, Miami Herald, Salon. com and The Huffington Post.

The wall of inspiration. Highland Intermediate after school program. highland Falls, NY

The wall of inspiration. Highland Intermediate after school program. highland Falls, NY

Connie and kelli bickman unveiling the world peace mural at the woodstock peace festival, summer 2015.

Connie and kelli bickman unveiling the world peace mural at the woodstock peace festival, summer 2015.