Giant mural captures spirit of Haverhill
HAVERHILL — For those who live and work in this former Shoe City, the sight has become a familiar part of the downtown landscape. Artists dressed in shorts, paint-smeared T-shirts, and well-worn baseball caps stand on a boom lift more than 20 feet off the ground, laboring on a four-story mural.
Underway for more than a month, work on the brick wall still draws attention. One glance and it’s easy to understand why passersby often stop and stare. The Essex Street gateway community mural is believed to be the largest public art project in the Merrimack Valley, if not all of Massachusetts.
Even now, as an incomplete work, it invites onlookers to consider Haverhill’s past, present, and future and the enduring spirit of entrepreneurship that has shaped the city. Titled “Hues of the Heart” in honor of one of the celebrated works of Quaker poet and native son John Greenleaf Whittier, the mural reflects downtown Haverhill’s transformation from an industrial area to a restaurant and arts district.
In the complex image, a host of different people and objects, both classic and contemporary, are assembled in an imagined theater composed entirely of architectural elements from Haverhill. Empty seats symbolize the city’s future.
“We wanted to both celebrate and strengthen Haverhill’s distinctive sense of place,” said Leota Sarrette, who is co-chairing the $100,000 project for Team Haverhill, the volunteer action group that commissioned it. “A lot of people who have moved to Haverhill don’t know the city’s history, and those who have lived here all their lives take it for grated. This project was a way for us to demonstrate what kind of city Haverhill is in a visual way.”
Since its inception in 2005, public art has been one of Team Haverhill’s most enduring and popular initiatives. To date, 25 murals of increasing size and complexity have been commissioned and installed downtown by the group. The latest, drawn on the side of the Essex Street Grille, dwarfs even the largest of its previous projects. The mural is expected to be completed this month; an unveiling ceremony is planned for June 15.
“It’s the kind of public art project that can have a catalytic effect on a community, so we’re really delighted that it’s coming to fruition,” said Gregory Liakos, spokesman for the Massachusetts Cultural Council, which last year awarded the project a $2,800 grant.
He noted that several other communities — including Lynn, Revere, and Somerville — have also had mural projects, but “this one is somewhat unique in that it captures the history of the city and some of the major personalities that have characterized the community’s development over the last few decades.”
The early inspiration for the Haverhill mural was the site itself. Just a few steps from the wall, movie mogul Louis B. Mayer, cofounder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, had opened his first theater, the Orpheum, in 1907. Nationally renowned muralist Meg Saligman, principal artist at MLS Studios in Philadelphia, took Team Haverhill’s initial concept of “the Mayer mural” and broadened it dramatically, inviting the community to have a hand in the artwork’s evolution.
“We plumbed the depths of Haverhill history to showcase the soul of the city,” said James Tafel Shuster of MLS Studios, who is overseeing a team of artists — Amanda Brack, a student at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Haverhill artist Jeff Grassie; and Josh Shaffner of Philadelphia — working at a frenetic pace to finish by June 15.
Themes for the mural emerged from community interviews and conversations, as well as archival research. During some 20 community paint sessions held throughout the city last year, local school children, business owners, senior citizens, and downtown residents of all ages helped bring to life the image that Saligman had envisioned. Hands both big and small painted pencil sketches on 62 cloth panels, each 5 by 6 feet.
“Imagine a giant paint-by-number kit,” said Grassie.
Several of the panels have yet to be installed, and portions of the mural must be sketched directly on the wall and then painted to complete the image.
Internationally known shoe designer Stuart Weitzman will be depicted on a sepia movie screen as a worker on a shoe factory assembly line. The late Barney Gallagher, a local journalist who interviewed many of the people depicted on the mural in a career that spanned more than 70 years, will appear as the projectionist, representing Haverhill’s workforce. Left-handed first baseman Carlos Pena, who graduated from Haverhill High School in 1995, will be shown sitting in the theater in front of Mike Ryan, a catcher from the “Queen Slipper City” who played for the Boston Red Sox in the 1960s.
Several of Haverhill’s current residents also will appear in the mural: Kalister Green-Byrd, a retired educator who now works with underprivileged kids at Haverhill High School; Liah Haginicolas, a student at Hill View Montessori, a local charter public school; and Woody Gaw, who works at the city’s Wicked Big Café. “People keep asking me how I got to be in the mural, and I have no idea,” says Gaw.
To watch the artists as they work, visit www.teamhaverhill.org. Contributions may be mailed to the Greater Haverhill Chamber of Commerce Community Arts Educational Foundation,c/o Tim Jordan, 167 Kingsbury Ave., Haverhill 01835. Checks should be made payable to “GHCC CAEF/ Mural.”
Brenda J. Buote may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.