Art / Environment

Murals fuel desire to make change

Portia Reiners

The “Hunts Point Heroes” mural at the Hyde Leadership Charter School.

Students celebrate Hunts Point’s waterfront and its ‘heroes’

Painted in brilliant colors, five familiar faces smile down on passersby on Hunts Point Avenue. The “Hunts Point Heroes” mural, designed by local teenagers and painted on wooden panels installed on the side of the Hyde Leadership Charter School, celebrates people who have dedicated their time to the community throughout the years.

The mural was completed last year, along with another, entitled “A Better Bronx” next to the entrance to Hunts Point Riverside Park on Edgewater Road. It, too, is the work of local youngsters who were brought together by the Brooklyn-based Groundswell, a non-profit organization that combines art and activism.

Each summer, Groundswell gathers a team of local people, age 14-21, and employs them to create a new mural in their neighborhood. The team members work together to design and create a piece that reflects their collective vision and conveys a message about social change.

“I think that murals speak to the community more than, you know, just saying what could be done, and I think it’s nice to look at the things that could happen if people put in the time and the effort,” said Shanice Rivea, a 16-year-old student at Hyde.

“It’s a way for young people to try to solve problems using creativity and to have something purposeful to do, that there is a real value to,” explained Amy Sananman, Groundswell’s founder.

The students did extensive research for each mural. For “Hunts Point Heroes,” said Moné Alexander, 16, “We were recognizing and praising the people that helped the community make a change.” Their work enshrines environmental activist Majora Carter, founder of Sustainable South Bronx, teacher and community organizer Sister Thomas, dancer Arthur Aviles, the co-founder of Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance, health worker Megan Charlop, co-founder of Greening for Breathing and Gilbert Valle, the “mayor of Spofford Avenue” known for his work with young people.

A junior at Hyde, Alexander said he and his team mates interviewed their subjects and made sure to feature a theme for each that suited their life, work and personality.

“We went on our own to time to talk with Chickie,” said another Hyde student, 17- year-old Charlie Rodriguez, using the affectionate nickname of Gilbert Valle, the owner of the Candy Box on Spofford Avenue. “We’re friends with him. A lot of us visit the store a lot.”

Rodriguez explained that the students began each mural with a general idea of the face or body they wanted. “Then we drew them on pieces of paper, planning it over and over again until we got everything perfect, and then we started the first paintings on the wood.” The students worked on the mural over the course of a few months during the school year, staying after school a few times a week to plan and paint.

“A Better Bronx,” which portrays people enjoying the waterfront park, was “much more research-based,” said Alexander, who worked on both murals. “That one was really about the community and environmental ideas.”

Knowing that their neighborhood is afflicted by more than its fair share of industrial pollution, the students wanted a theme that encouraged environmental awareness. So they decided to create a mural that celebrates the clean-up of the Bronx River and the creation of parks and greenways that give residents access to their waterfront.

The mural project will continue for another year, and three more murals are planned. “We want these kids to look around and see what possibilities are there for change,” said Sananman. “Once a kid does a project like this, they get hooked. They see how they can create something monumental.”

The students offered glowing reviews of their experience.

“I loved Joel and I loved Crystal,” Alexander said of Crystal Bruno and Joel Bergner, the two professional artists who guided the students on the heroes mural. “They were like the best people ever and we just chilled and it was fun painting and we interviewed people. We had laughs, we’d talk about songs, we ate M&M’s like all the time,” she added mischievously.

“It was good because we were like a unit,” Rivea said. “A lot of people have said that they liked it and that we should continue doing it. I would love to paint murals to make a change.”

Now in its seventeenth year, Groundswell has completed over 400 works of public art throughout the city and in Newark, New Jersey. Streetwise, the Hunts Point mural program which organized the new murals, was designed with support from the Rockefeller Foundation Cultural Innovation Fund and supported by the New York City Department of Transportation and the Majora Carter Group.

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